AUSTIN, Texas -- A character in the "The Red Fox" observed that all government comes down to three questions:

  • "Who benefits, who profits?"

  • "Who rules the rulers?"

  • "What the hell will they do to us next?"

The "Who benefits?" part of President Bush's proposed tax cut has been thoroughly examined. Even the dimmest of us have got the point that it's a tax cut for the very rich with a little sop thrown in for some of the rest of us. According to the Citizens for Tax Justice, the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers receive on average a $15 tax cut the first year and $37 by 2004.

The 20 percent of taxpayers in the middle of the income distribution scale get an average of $170 in tax cuts, rising to $409 in 2004.

The average cut to the top 1 percent of taxpayers would be $13,469 in 2002 and $31,201 in 2004. The Bush plan gives 43 percent of all the tax relief to the richest 1 percent of the people.

Few of us seem to be alert to the other shoe here. The counterpart of "Who benefits?" is "Who pays?"

In the curious logic of the Republican Party, anyone who points out this blatant act of class warfare is accused of "fomenting class warfare." As you may have noticed, rich people are not staggering under their burden of taxation -- there are more of them, and they're richer than ever. If this is what the right calls "redistribution of wealth," it's working fine right now to pump money from the poor to the rich.

The further question that almost no one has addressed is: "What does this thing actually cost?"

One of the hardest and most important questions in government is: "How much does it cost to not do it?" It's real easy to find out how much a program -- say, a children's vaccination campaign -- costs. But what does it cost not to do it? We wouldn't know until there was an epidemic of diphtheria or polio, would we?

What does it cost to cut community policing? How many more lives are rotting away in prison for more than it costs to send them to Harvard? What does it cost to skimp on prenatal care? What does it cost not to have preschool for children? We know who benefits from this tax cut, but who really pays for it?

One of the silliest arguments that you hear during these fights is: "We're not cutting spending! We're only slowing the rate of growth in spending." That means they're cutting spending.

This game gets played all the time. "See? In last year's budget there was only $100 million for children's health care, and this year we have $101 million. That's an increase!" No, it's not. If you know that the program will have to serve 5 percent more children this year than it did last, that's not an increase -- it's a cut.

Look at the cost of Bush's tax cut in terms of what could otherwise be paid for. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, after 10 years, when the Bush cuts have fully kicked in, the cut for the richest 1 percent will total $774 billion. That just happens to be more than the $736 billion needed to provide a high-quality prescription drug plan, and that $736 billion is over and above the inadequate plan proposed by Bush.

Of the actual cuts proposed by Bush, the Energy Department's fuel efficiency and renewable fuels program will be cut 22 percent. Given the number of Texas oilmen in this administration, we should have expected it -- but talk about shortsighted.

This is who rules the rulers? Reliance on fossil fuels is poisoning the Earth, and this guy wants to cut off research into alternatives. The implications of that decision alone are staggering.

The conservative mantra on tax cuts is: "It's your money." Yes it is, and it's your national debt, too. You have to help fund government because it's the price of living in a civilized society.

If you think you would have been better off being born in Rwanda, good luck. With government, as with much else in life, you get what you pay for, and you pay for real services.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.