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Not-So-Great Rebate

As our national economy continues to sag like a 1960s Playmate, the personal toll can be felt in our dwindling savings, mounting credit card debt, diminished home value, rising fuel costs, plummeting stock portfolio, and a future gone flatline. In this prelude to what may be the biggest economic catastrophe since that Great Depression your grandparents used to whine about, what have our leaders come up with to solve our economic woes?

600 bucks.

That’s right! In a cleverly simplistic plan a third-grader and our president can understand, Congress will vote to provide a $600 tax rebate to individuals making up to $75,000 a year, plus an extra $300 per progeny spawned. So a double-income family of four earning up to $150,000 annually can count on receiving an extra $1,800 – but not until the summer, when most of us can use the extra beer money.

Like a defibrillatorjolt to Dick Cheney’s reluctant heart, this fresh influx of unearned money is expected to "jump-start" our weakening economy. In announcing this bi-partisan brainstorm,both sides avoided using the word “stimulus,” which would suggest that our flaccid economy was in need of stimulation; they also steered clear of the words “recession,” “tailspin,” and “toilet.”But in case you’re lulled into believing this isn’t a disaster, consider that the last time we needed a federal economic-aid tax rebate was in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11 when, of course, all Americans needed to shop more.

Whether you’re giddy over the prospect of a guilty luxury item (rare bottle of 1830 Ritz Reserve cognac: $555) or a desperate necessity (porcelain crown with metallic inlay: $580), you might want to ask where, in this time of economic uncertainty and financial tumult, this $150 billion financial aid package -- including $50 billion in “business incentives” -- is coming from. It’s borrowed money, silly! And a drop in the bucket compared to the $9.1 trillion currently owed by your deadbeat Uncle Sam – which basically means YOU, the taxpayer. So in addition to suffering the impact of our national financial crisis, and the crushing weight of your own record household debt, you now owe another $600 that you didn’t ask for. It’s like your kid hitting you up for 20 bucks to buy you an ugly tie for Father’s Day.

Not to look an unwanted gift-horse in the mouth, but how, exactly, will this help our limping economy? If every man, woman, and child rushed out to spend their meager windfall,$100 billion could be expected to flow intoAmerica’s economic machinery-- causing barely a ripple in our nearly 14 trillion dollar economy. But even that tiny swell of hope won’t be forthcoming: according to a recent AP poll, 41 percent of respondents said they would use the money to pay bills, while 32 percent said they would save the money. So in other words, roughly three-quarters of rebate recipients will use their cash to pay for purchases they already made,or else hoard the money. Take that, gift-horse!

But certainly the poor, who can use every nickel they can rub together, will benefit most from a few extra bucks, right? Not if they don’t file a tax return, as many desperately poor do not. (A single earner with a gross annual income under $8,025 is not required to file a return, presumably because he can’t afford the stamp.) No tax return, no rebate! But if you want to risk an audit after suddenly showing up in an IRS database after years of absence, you can file a return and collect your whopping 300 bucks -- half of what a taxpayer earning $75k will receive. And if you earn less than $3,000, you get nothing -- not because the couple earning $150k need it more than you to help cover their Wine of the Month Club membership, but presumably because you're likely to expire in your dung-hut before you can do your share to help our flagging economy.

There would have been more for America’s neediest but the Democrats’ proposal to increase spending on food stamps and unemployment benefits were removed at the insistence of the White House. Gone too are plans to boost home heating subsidies, financial aid to seniors, and money for public works projects. “Complexity is our enemy,” said Treasury Secretary and friend to the simple, Henry Paulson. “Once you start considering additions — the food stamps, unemployment insurance and so on — it’s a slippery slope, and there is a real danger that we’re going to bog down and screech to a stop.”

We could question the wisdom of our leaders, or the logic of a slope being both slippery and a bog, but the patriotic thing to do right now – as it was after 9/11 – is to spend our way to prosperity, the way our government and a college student with his first credit card thinks they can. $600 worth of beer can make even the worst of times start to look pretty rosy, but only until the buzz wears off.

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A Modest Proposal for a film by Kurt Engfehr and Ken Pisani.
2006 Ken Pisani and Kurt Engfehr.  All rights reserved.
All "Blogging Poorly" posts  Ken Pisani.