The duty to die: Powerball & the American Dream


You may not know it, but this country now expects you to die on cue.

The National Center for Health Statistics recently published a report noting the shabby and unequal state of healthcare in America. Better educated, higher income folks have it good. The great unwashed don't.

The message is simple: survival of the financially fittest. The rest can go out and die in the worst tradition of wrongheaded Social Darwinism. This particular perversion of science may not actually be written into public policy, but it certainly is working out that way.

In a twisted way, this will benefit the graying Baby Boom, that bulge in the neck of the statistical ostrich made up of people born between 1946 and 1964.

People who die early and never collect their benefits are the key element to the survival of Social Security and other endangered retirement plans.

The separate and unequal U.S. health care system now seems properly positioned to continue the law of the jungle.

U.S. men now rank 22nd in the world for life expectancy. U.S. women rank 17th. Japan, despite its "die at your desk" workaholic reputation, remains the healthiest nation on earth. European and Scandinavian countries also outrank us.

If education is supposed to be the key to raising incomes and thus making us on the whole healthier, then education should be our priority.

It's certainly number one in terms of political lip service. Nevada government cooks the books then smugly says it spends over half the state's "unrestricted budget" on education. However, when the full 24-month, $9.3 billion state spending cycle is taken into account, we actually spend only about one-fifth on schools.

State's rights Nevadans conditioned to hate the feds blush when told that the largest chunk of state revenue comes from the despised federal government. At least we're getting some of our money back.

Second to the feds come our infamous hidden taxes such as those on gasoline and other retail sales. These regressive levies cruelly penalize lower income earners. The less you make, the larger the percentage of your wage goes to hidden taxes on retail items.

Federal revenues (25.3%) combined with sales (16.2%) and other taxes (22.1%) accounted for a whopping 63.6% of state revenue in 1996-97. Gaming placed out of the money, a poor fourth at 17.3% of state revenue. Recent press reports have noted that the brutal retail sales tax has now moved past gaming's contribution all by itself.

Casino taxes only fund about 11 percent of total state spending. Organized gambling actually pays nothing, as all state levies are federally deductible, the ultimate corporate welfare shell game.

Casinos don't want a diversified economy. They fight competition for the low-wage labor pool which often doesn't earn enough to eat. Full-time casino workers are regular customers at St. Vincent's Dining Room in Reno. Last month, the Las Vegas Salvation Army and other Gomorrah South charities ran out of food for the first time in many years.

Corporations in Nevada and elsewhere thus have a big stake in poor education. For decades, companies have spent billions on tax-deductible PR programs and imposingly-named foundations all assigned to trash government in general and public education in particular. Their motivation is pure greed: lower the pressure for public services and you've lowered the pressure for fair taxation.

Nationally, corporate taxes have dwindled as the burden has been shifted to individuals. While personal taxes have skyrocketed, wages have been depressed since 1973. We have no hope of ever recovering 25 years of loss. Meanwhile, government has been helping corporations export our jobs.

The latest insult came with a congressional vote to begin expansion of Interstate 69, a midwest Mexican-Canadian freeway, the bitter fruit of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. taxpayer is being asked to pay $7.2 billion (before cost overruns) for this NAFTA freeway to better facilitate the import of slave-labor goods and the export of U.S. employment.

Here in Nevada, the government bashing continues apace. U.S. Rep. John Ensign (R-Las Vegas), currently airs a hatchet-job TV spot accusing U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of voting for the largest tax increase in U.S. history in 1993.

Sen. Reid's response is not much better. He dismisses Ensign's charges as simply "a lie." The good senator does not substantiate his rebuttal.

Allow me.

My heroes, two-time Pulitzer Prize winners Donald Barlett and James Steele, wrote the following in "America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?": "For most Americans, the greatest change came in 1943, when witholding was instituted. Never again would the average worker receive a full paycheck...income tax collections spiraled...a 1,870 percent increase...It was the largest tax increase in American history."

It paid for the most successful of all big government programs, World War II.

Barlett and Steele point out that if the 1993 increase had been of the same magnitude, 1997 government revenue would have totaled $5.5 trillion.

"Enough money to eliminate not deficits, but the entire national debt in a single year. By that yardstick, the 1993 tax increase was historically insignificant," they write.

Ensign's poorly posed political potshotting perpetuates public distrust of government, which makes it easier for corporations to cut taxes for themselves and foist them on us. Gambling did exactly that by facilitating huge sales tax increases during the 1997 legislative session.

Increasing multitudes now have only a one in 80 billion shot at ever having a decent retirement. It's called Powerball.

People are thus increasingly willing to take their chances spending all they have on lotteries, Megabucks slots and other such sucker bets.

The poor are the gamblers' best customers and the industry is busily creating more of them right here every day.

Thinking of that is enough to wreck your health all by itself.

Be well. Raise hell


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 8/2/98.