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While rich kids take jets to camp, poor ones lose books and the rest of us wait for the budget ax to fall

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Americans used to poke fun at what we disparaging called the Banana Republics of Latin America, countries built by the puppets of the fabulously wealthy on the backs of the poor. Now we are meeting the Banana Republic of the 21st century. It is beginning to look startlingly like us.

The juxtaposition of two articles in today's New York Times speaks volumes about the emerging oligarchy that is 21st Century America.

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In one, an opinion piece, columnist Paul Krugma n decries the debt-ceiling deal offered by President Obama and so far rejected by Republicans because it includes modest increases in tax revenues for the rich. Obama's offer, which would impose roughly three times as much in budget cuts over 10 years as it asks for in tax revenue increases, among other things proposes to save money by raising the eligibility age for Medicare, according to press reports.

"Raising the Medicare age is a terrible idea," Krugman, the economist turned columnist, writes. "... Why not simply raise taxes on high incomes instead?"

Krugman, of course, knows the answer. It is both that Republicans are fanatical on the issue of taxing the rich and that Democrats never pushed back before the last election, folding their tent without a battle. Could it be that both parties ultimately are so reliant on the largesse of the super-rich that the gaping inequities of income and wealth in this country can only get bigger and bigger?

Consider this sentence in Nicholas Kristof's recent Times column, "Bonuses for Billionaires."

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"America's richest 400 people own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans," he writes.

After reading that sentence, I rubbed my eyes and followed Kristof's links to the source --www.politifact.com , which gauges the truth of political claims. This one initially was made by documentarian and liberal flamethrower Michael Moore, but, as the link demonstrates, it holds up. (If you're rushed for time, Politifact came up with these two tidbits: Forbes Magazine reported in September 2010 that the 400 wealthiest Americans are worth $1.37 trillion or $1,370,000,000,000. And, the poorest three-fifths of Americans hold just 2.3 percent of the country's wealth.)

Perhaps I should be more sympathetic to the rich. What with multiple mansions and private jets, America's billionaires and mere millionaires do have serious expenses, undoubtedly why they contribute so much money to elect politicians who will protect their wealth. Which leads me to that second article I read in today's Times. Writing under the headline "To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining up for Private Jets," Times reporter Christine Haughney discovered that something other than gas prices shot up sharply this year: the demand for private jets to whisk the kids to summer camp.

Writes Haughney: "Now, even as the economy limps along, more of the nation's wealthier families are cutting out the car ride and chartering planes to fly to summer camps. One private jet broker, Todd Rome of Blue Star Jets, said his summer-business had jumped 30 percent over last year."

If that's not ample evidence why the rich should not pay a penny more in taxes ...

But there's that annoying Kristof again, pointing out that the rising deficit and the lowest tax rate in decades for nearly everyone does have a cost to society.

In a column titled "Republicans, Zealots and Our Security," he tells the story
of "Reading is Fundamental," a 45-year-old non-profit program with 400,000 volunteers.
Its role, Kristof writes, is to put "books in the hands of low-income children." Until this year, the U.S. government considered the program worthy enough to partner with, contributing some $25 million last year to help 4 million kids learn to read better. And the federal contribution in the months and years ahead? Zero. Another federal government cut, pretty much without public notice by our elected representatives or our watchdog press.

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It is this kind of jarring juxtaposition, of kids denied the chance to read against those rushing to private jet planes to fly to summer camp, that makes the underlying budgetary discussion in the Great Debt Default Bonanza more than a matter of partisan politics.

It is a matter of decency.


 

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.

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