January 24, 2008
Well, what do you know. Congress isn’t broken after all. The president isn’t an obstructionist. When the country is in crisis, the wheels of government can spin at lightning speed.
Of course, it depends on the crisis. We’ve had a crisis in Iraq for almost five years; we have an energy crisis, a climate crisis, a health-care crisis, an immigration crisis, an education crisis, and all we get is partisan deadlock. But when the economy, stupid, takes a little dip, everybody hops to it. Get that stimulus package enacted, said Treasury Secretary Paulson the other day, and "we’ll run like a bunny to carry it out."
What’s up, doc?
Proposals to reverse the present economic "downturn" — none dare call it recession just yet — are being developed by the administration and by both parties in Congress. They differ in the details — Republicans want still more tax cuts, Democrats want extended unemployment benefits — but all tout immediate income-tax rebates (apparently those too poor to pay taxes wouldn’t get anything) of something like $800 for individuals and $1600 for couples. The idea is to inject a spurt (or surge) of cash into people’s pockets, presuming they’ll spend it right away, thus increasing consumer demand and keeping employment high to meet it.
Whoopee! With 800 bucks you can start up your motor home and buy enough gas to get you to, say, the Oregon border and back. Or you can visit your local furniture store and clean up at its going-out-of-business sale. You could also pay down your credit cards, contribute to your IRA, or pay the adjusted portion of your adjustable-rate mortgage and forestall foreclosure for another month or two, but those options may not be patriotic, since the government wants you to buy things.
Remember the 2001 tax rebate? During the Clinton years, the federal government had amassed a healthy surplus, and the newly-installed President Bush and his Congress, facing a bit of a downturn then too, magnanimously returned some of it to the public, who obviously could spend it more wisely. It didn’t do much for the economy, nor for the taxpayers. When I got my $300 check, I felt uncomfortable: Why wasn’t the government saving this for a rainy day? It started to rain hard after September 11.
And remember the $100 check the Congress proposed a couple years ago to help drivers cope with soaring gas prices (when they were about half of what they are now)? The politicians were enormously pleased with themselves but quickly withdrew the scheme in the face of a national guffaw: What’s a hundred bucks? people scorned; don’t just piddle with the energy crisis, do something about it.
I suspect that most Americans feel the same about the current giveaway plan. Another $145 billion in tax breaks only adds to the enormity of the national debt; what we really want is the opposite: fiscal responsibility. We want a balanced budget and prudent spending. Over the years, Bush’s rah-rah mantra of tax cuts has been met with a yawn by the people at large. Instead, there is a yearning for sacrifice that has eluded the politicians, Democrat and Republican alike. If the country really needs things, we’re willing to pay for them, as long as the rich and the corporations pay their fair share too.
Americans know that the economy doesn’t need a "jump start" — "targeted, timely, temporary," as the administration alliteratively announced — but an engine overhaul. The latest economic stimulus package is no New Deal; it’s more like "Let’s Make a Deal," where you never know what’s behind Door #1. True and lasting economic stimulus is best produced by getting necessary things done — putting people to work repairing our crumbling infrastructure, funding public transportation, encouraging investment in alternative-energy research and projects, financing affordable housing — things that benefit the nation as a whole. Tax rebates are the atomized opposite, a sprinkling of fairy-dust over the land.
We citizens want change, as the presidential candidates never tire of reminding us, but for most of them "change" is just a word. The economic stimulus package is change too — as in "pocket change." What we really want is to feel good about ourselves again, and we feel best when working together towards a common goal, for the common good.
We’d run like a bunny for that kind of change.