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Burning Issues

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Which scares you the most — a nation crawling with pyromaniac forest rangers or the fact that Larry Hagman — J.R. of “Dallas” fame — wants his friends to eat him when he dies? “I want to be fed through a wood chipper,” Hagman says, “be spread over a wheat field, then have a cake baked from the crop for all my pals to munch on.”

There is, of course, no wrong answer to this test. Some people might be more frightened to know that “scientists” have created a new polio virus from scratch, using a recipe posted somewhere on the Internet. Or that the Bush administration is preparing to resume full-scale nuclear testing. Or that retirement accounts are disappearing faster than yesterday’s ink and we’ll all be eating cat food in our golden years.

Over the weekend, 14 fires burned through a quarter-million acres in Oregon. A plane crash killed 78 people in Ukraine. The miners got out, but only a day later six people were critically injured when an Amtrak train derailed outside Washington, D.C. Little girls are disappearing all over America and “there’s a one-in-60,000 chance” — again according to scientists — that we’ll all be wiped out by “the most dangerous yet discovered” asteroid on February 1, 2019. Even New York’s Russian Tea Room has closed — how much worse can it get?

This is where you need to read the fine print, because it can get a lot worse — at least for you, me and anyone else unlucky enough not to be made of money. A story in The New York Times reports that the rich have found a new way to cheat on their taxes, a scam involving the purchase of colossally expensive life-insurance policies.

“Through a technique invented by a lawyer in New York and a chemical engineer in California,” the Times reports, “each dollar spent on this insurance can typically eliminate $9 in taxes. Spend $10 million on this insurance, avoid $90 million or more in income, gift, generation-skipping and estate taxes.” And it’s all “legal, blessed by the IRS.” A New York tax lawyer remarks, “I’m not saying this is the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s really good for pushing wealth forward tax-free.” So let’s get started!

Here’s another scary one: In the wake of the 1996 “welfare reform” laws, more and more American children “appear to be living in households without either parent.” This is because parents, and especially mothers, have to work shit jobs for low wages to get their “assistance,” leaving no one to look after the kids except the odd grandmother, sister, cousin, aunt, drug dealer or child molester. Republicans are now demanding that welfare recipients work 40 hours a week for the privilege, not including education and job training. As Dubya says, we don’t want to “spend a bunch more money to make us feel better.”

And just when you thought your government was “getting tough” on corporate scofflaws and dragging felonious executives off to prison in chains, Congress approved new bankruptcy legislation that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to escape your debts under any circumstances — catastrophic illness, say, or disability, unemployment, a divorce, an accident. Sorry: You should have thought of that before you signed for the credit cards.

“In these hard economic times,” says Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, “while we’re dealing with corporate responsibility, we should also address personal responsibility” — or, as the Times’ Bill Keller puts it, shilling for the status quo, “With deep sympathy for the victims, it seems to me this is one of those inevitable, chastening moments from which the country may benefit in important ways… Any recovery begins with an honest reckoning.”

But who’s the chief booster of the bankruptcy scheme? Our own Saint Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who tells reporters, “We have worked hard for a year to make this a better and more balanced bill, and we have succeeded. I look forward to working on a bipartisan basis to get it passed.”

President Bush “looks forward to signing” it. And you can look forward to a lifetime of fiscal slavery, lawlessness for the powerful and servitude for the weak. (The rich can move to Florida, where the government can’t touch your house, your car or your offshore accounts, no matter how deeply in debt or, for that matter, criminal you are. Corporations will go on “reorganizing” to their hearts’ content.)

Luckily, the new bankruptcy bill probably won’t survive a Republican amendment tacked to its shirttails in the rush to give President Bush a free hand on “free trade.” This amendment would have exempted “pro-life” terrorists from the new regulations; apparently they declare bankruptcy quite a lot, in order to escape fines, lawsuits, damage awards, etc.

But this setback is only temporary. The credit-card industry has its heart set on the new legislation, and the bankruptcy bill will undoubtedly pass when the scoundrels return. “The timing couldn’t be worse,” says Travis B. Plunkett, director of the Consumer Federation of America. “It takes a lot of gall for Congress to make a move like this when so many Americans are concerned about corporate abuses, and when the economy is so shaky.”

So what? Americans are concerned about priestly abuses, too, and the Pope still hasn’t apologized.

As to those forest fires — it seems one of the culprits, a volunteer firefighter called Leonard Gregg, has admitted to setting half of Arizona ablaze in order to get a paid job on a fire crew. Hearing this, U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton exclaimed — hold on to your hats — “This fire was started with a profit motive behind it!”

A profit motive? Pray, what’s that?

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