A Caper Flick With a Lone Star

People hate reading about budgets. Budgets are often not only depressing, but tedious and difficult to comprehend. If citizens are to pay attention, the budget debate has to be a lot more entertaining. So, from now on-or at least until 2004-think of the federal budget as a caper movie: The Great Treasury Robbery .

In this script, there are no car chases or high-tech gadgets. All the violence takes place off-screen. (That’s a different movie.) There isn’t even an explosion that blows open the bank vault. But by the end of the story, trillions of dollars have disappeared from the U.S. Treasury, and the guys who heisted the money are long gone. Put in the traditional “high concept” Hollywood terms: It’s The Sting meets The Grifters at the Heritage Foundation!

Like other caper movies, this one begins with assembling the team. It’s a challenging and incredibly expensive process that offers some sense of the plot’s scope: The movie opens with the successful seizure of the White House. In the early scenes, lobbyists and corporate executives collect a couple of hundred million dollars for the war chest of the most expensive Presidential campaign in history. But that’s chicken feed compared with the eventual pay-off.

Their front man is George (Dubya) Bush, a smooth, playful guy with a down-home drawl. The closest advisers in his crew-sometimes whispered to be the real brains behind his operation-are Dick (Big Time) Cheney and Karl (Boy Genius) Rove. Their backstory is that Dubya and Boy Genius took over and looted the state of Texas, leaving behind a gigantic deficit. Now they’re aiming for the biggest score in history.

Dubya charms the chumps with implausible but mesmerizing patter. He tells them he can cut taxes by a trillion dollars or so, increase the defense budget, improve education, add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, continue to pay down the national debt-and still balance the budget.

In a long but suspenseful sequence, their plan is almost thwarted when, despite a spending advantage of almost $60 million and a lot of happy publicity, the Dubya crew narrowly loses the November 2000 election to a guy named Gore. An old consigliere to Dubya’s family comes in to turn the situation around. A goon squad intimidates the vote counters in Miami. A judge appointed by Dubya’s father casts the vote that gives the gang their victory. They’re finally in.

With the help of Boy Genius, Dubya muscles the tax cut through Congress, at an estimated total cost of nearly $2 trillion, including increased interest on the debt. Most of that money will wind up in the pockets of Dubya’s cronies in the top 1 percent.

Over the summer, the national surplus suddenly disappears. Almost nobody worries much because Dubya says this is only temporary, and he has plenty of dough to cover contingencies. Smiling confidently, he insists that the surplus will be restored by 2005 at the latest. The suckers start getting suspicious, however, especially when they hear that the budget numbers don’t add up. But a horrific terrorist attack and the persistent recession give Dubya plausible excuses. “I hit the trifecta,” he explains with a chuckle when asked what happened to the surplus.

In his State of the Union speech a few months later, Dubya again offers reassurance. While the numbers may look bad for the moment, he says, “our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-lived.” He says the real problem is the “axis of evil.” His White House aides insist that everything will be fine very soon. The money keeps disappearing.

It’s all a setup for the next stage in early 2003, when Dubya unveils a new budget with still more enormous tax cuts. He shrugs off a record deficit of $307 billion because he has something for everyone. The liberals will get hydrogen cars and AIDS assistance to Africa; the conservatives will get a defense buildup, school vouchers and a war on Iraq, with unspecified costs that may reach $200 billion.

“We will not deny, we will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other Presidents and other generations,” Dubya promises, to loud applause. His “boldness” is widely praised.

Meanwhile, Dubya’s henchmen have designed a series of additional tax cuts and breaks for the top bracket that will continue to drain off hundreds of billions of dollars annually. What he doesn’t mention is that over the 10 years projected by his own accountants, these proposals will reduce federal revenues by $1.46 trillion, emptying the Treasury and leaving millions who depend on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with no visible means of support. Two-thirds of those costs won’t occur until after 2008.

By then, of course, Dubya, Big Time and Boy Genius will have skipped town. As the credits roll, they ride off into the sunset, in their golf carts.