The Man From Alcoa | The Nation


The Man From Alcoa

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Paul O'Neill was supposed to be the "grownup" in the Bush Cabinet, the guy with government savvy from many years in Washington and the industrial-strength smarts of a successful CEO. Instead, he sounds more like Uncle Bonzo, flapping his gums with crank pronouncements on how the world ought to work. Some people (including many reporters and editors) pretend not to hear his rants. Except--good grief--this guy is Secretary of the Treasury. O'Neill's verbal excursions are reminiscent of a former President known as the Gipper, whose legendary pop-off remarks (trees are the biggest polluters) seemed amusingly daft until it became obvious Ronald Reagan was dangerously sincere.

About the Author

William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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Reforming Social Security and Medicare? O'Neill wonders aloud why we need them at all. "There's a concept that has a lot of appeal to me," he mused. "Able-bodied adults should save enough on a regular basis so that they can provide for their own retirement and for that matter for their health and medical needs." Otherwise, he explained to the Financial Times, elderly people are just dumping their problems on the broader society. On June 18, the Secretary went to Wall Street to rally the financial guys in behalf of his crusade. The brokerages and banks will pony up $20 million for TV ads selling Social Security privatization. The package is called "reform," but O'Neill's musings indicate that the lasting objective is destruction.

The risks of nuclear power? "If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear is really very good," he explained. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?

Corporate taxation? A ridiculous scam, O'Neill complains. Don't just reduce the tax on business profit--abolish it! Abolish the corporate income tax? "Absolutely. In economic logic, there is no reason to have the phony process as though somehow individual human beings didn't pay the taxes that are embedded in the prices of goods and services." What about the capital gains tax on business? "Left to work in the most satisfying theoretical way, if there weren't any corporate and business taxes, there sure as hell wouldn't be corporate and business capital gains taxes. Therefore, there wouldn't be any need to lower the rates because there wouldn't be any rates at all."

AIDS treatment drugs for Africa? A waste of money, an unnamed senior Treasury official suggested to the New York Times, because Africans lack the "concept of time" needed to take pills at the prescribed hourly intervals. O'Neill was widely believed to be the unnamed source. He was taken off the hook somewhat when another Bush official, the new administrator of the Agency for International Development, made the same point on the record. Many Africans, Andrew Natsios explained to the Boston Globe, cannot tell time because they only know morning, noon and night (plus, they don't own watches). So how could they possibly take their medicine at the right times? Religious Action Network, Africa Action and the Health GAP Coalition sent angry protests to Secretary of State Colin Powell, but also to the Treasury Secretary. O'Neill's evasive reply made them even angrier.

These and other glimpses into Paul O'Neill's thinking reveal the mind of a stone-age Republican, notwithstanding his progressive assertions on matters like worker safety and global warming. Like Reagan's rambles, O'Neill's breezy, righteous self-certainty provokes mirth as well as alarm. But it would be a mistake to dismiss them as Bonzo's harmless ruminations. O'Neill reflects the warped sensibility of some leading industrialists, people who are not simply flaky right-wingers but who run things. In his peculiar perspective on society, the most flagrant injustices are inflicted upon the wealthy and powerful, and they ought to be eradicated. While the prospects for achieving this are unpromising, O'Neill's sermonettes on the tax system and other abominations are probably helpful to the White House political agenda--stroking the corporate interests that got left out of the first tax-cutting round as well as the right-wing frothers. O'Neill confided that the President is "intrigued" by his out-of-the-box thoughts. Phase out Social Security? Repeal corporate taxation? He can't be serious. That's what they used to say about the Gipper.

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