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Stateside With Rosalea: Lucky For Some

Last Sunday afternoon, sitting in my kitchen upstairs in an old two-storey building in the East Bay I felt like I was back in Wellington again: the floor and furniture were moving - and kept moving for at least 10 seconds - in that side-to-side motion that earns New Zealand the title "Shaky Isles". The cause was an earthquake centered 16km east of San Jose, about 80km south of me, measuring 4.4 on the Richter scale but causing very little damage. Enough of a shake, though, to warrant the march of an army ant announcement across our TV screens, saying there'd be full coverage in the 6 o'clock news.

It was scary. It was nothing. It was a pebble to a boulder in comparison to the shake that hit Seattle and the Pacific Northwest three days later. And THAT shake was a pebble to a small-sized planet in comparison to what geologists say is likely to happen at some time during the next 200 years as the ocean plate slides further under the continent. In all the coverage of the earthquake and its aftermath one theme has remained constant - just how lucky the Northwest was.

Lucky that the quake was so deep. Lucky that it happened at 11 in the morning and not an hour later when many more people would have been in the street, perhaps directly under falling bricks and masonry. Not so lucky was the Capitol building in Olympia, where the legislature was in session - it suffered quite significant damage. And very considerably less lucky was the capital city of San Salvador in Central America, which suffered yet another significant earthquake a few hours after the one in the Northwest - its third this year.

Another theme running through the coverage of the Northwest quake is the role that a federal govenment assistance plan - called Project Impact - had played in making Seattle buildings safe, thereby averting much worse damage, perhaps even saving lives. It's a pilot project under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and it's one of the projects that the Bush administration plans to end - rather than to extend to other states - by cutting off the funding so as to finance other parts of the budget.

The Bush budget speech aired live in its entirety on NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS the previous night at 6pm Pacific Time. I missed the first part of it but tuned in just as he got to his tax cut plan. In America the budget is the President's baby. The President is part of the Executive branch of government, which has essentially three parts - the Executive Office of the President, the executive departments (headed by "the Secretary of"), and about 200 independent agencies. One part of the Executive Office is the Office of Management and Budget.

It is to the OMB that all executive departments and agencies send their budget needs, and the President and the OMB use this information to plan how much is needed for all the duties the federal government is going to carry out. In case you hadn't already realised it, I should explain that the people who head the executive departments (and become part of his cabinet) are all appointed by the President, but vetted by the Senate. They are not drawn from the ranks of sitting members in the way they are in parliamentary democracies like New Zealand.

The Budget Control Act of 1985 required all new budgets to be balanced and to contain plans to reduce the national debt. About 20 percent of every budget goes to reduce interest on the national debt, 60 percent goes on defence, Social Security and Medicare, and about 18 percent is spent on federal courts, federal prisons, post offices, highways, education, national parks and so on. The money in the federal coffers comes mostly from personal income tax - just over half. About one third comes from Social Security taxes, and the rest from corporate and other taxes.

Having set the priorities for his budget, Bush essentially has to sell it to both the House of Representatives and the Senate and he has to sell it to members from his own party as much as to those who sit across the aisles from them. One of his strategies is to enlist a vast army of persuaders. After quickly summarising the key points in his budget speech, his radio address to the nation this morning concluded this way: "And now, I hope you'll send a message in favour of tax relief to your congressman or your senator. After all, the surplus is your money."

That last sentence is probably the hardest for the Democrats to rebut. When Bush said: " A surplus, after all, is an over-charge of American tax payers. And on your behalf, I am asking for a refund." he pretty much left the Democrats with only one line of argument - to dispute the existence of a surplus. Which leads to a lot of eye-glazing-over figures and opinions from dry-as-dust economists and market analysts, who are likely to say that even if there is a surplus tax cuts will ruin the economy and quickly eliminate it anyway. "Good news is bad news" is not a tack that's likely to result in much wind in the Democrats' sails.

Immediately following Bush's speech to the joint session of Congress on Tuesday night the Democrats had airtime to offer a response. Dear readers, I let you down. After watching only the first few dreary minutes of the Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle - seated in what looked like a library and sounding like a school headmaster - I switched to the Fox channel. It also didn't help that the microphone pinned to his co-responder - the Democratic Leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Gephardt - was live and picking up all Gephardt's coughs and splutters.

So I don't know if they commented on the irony of Bush saying he supported protecting the environment and then putting at the top of the list of things American families could buy with their $1600 a year tax cut "gas for two cars". Have they even noticed that Pooh Bear has been put in charge of the honey pot, in the form of VP Cheney heading a committee on energy? Did the Democrats make anything of how the issue in Bush's speech that got the longest applause - election and campaign reforms - was mentioned in one line and not elaborated upon?

Maybe it was the Capitol in Washington D.C. that got lucky. The person who programs the computer that creates earthquakes got the time wrong for the speech to the joint session of Congress. They got the date wrong. And they put in the coordinates for Washington state's Capitol building, not the one in Washington D.C. Ah well. That just leaves it up to the American people to build a movement for election and campaign reform that "will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls", as the Bob Dylan song says.

As for me, I'm off down to the Lotto shop to get my 1-in-41 million chance at winning $89 million. A tax on idiocy is one tax even idiots don't object to.

Lea Barker California Saturday, 3 March 2001

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