Politics & Policy

Rebates For Morons

Here's the beauty of a tax rebate: The government doesn't tell you what to do with it.

I’m not a huge fan of the Bush administration’s rebate. It sounds perilously close to vote buying. Its critics on the Right and the Left have a perfectly valid point: $300 dollars is not enough money to make a significant difference in people’s lives. Last Sunday’s Washington Post featured a profile of four families about to receive the rebate and the best any of them could say about it was that they could buy some patio furniture with the money.

Of course, the Lefties would use the money to force-feed various bloated programs like a French goose on a foie gras farm. The notion that David Bonior and John Conyers would make the country a better place with an extra trillion dollars to throw around like Mike Tyson on a Prozac binge is a nonstarter with me.

Meanwhile, the criticism from the Right has a lot of traction with me. As David Brooks wrote not too long ago in the New York Times, “This bit of pump-priming is exactly the sort of thing Reagan Republicans always fought. Instead of rearranging incentives to encourage innovation and production, it encourages more shopping. It treats wealth as a purely material thing: We’ve got some money. We’re going to give it to you. We hope you’ll vote for us.”

He’s right. Even if it meant I wouldn’t get that $300 to double the size of Cosmo the Wonderdog’s Frisbee cache, I would gladly have sacrificed it for a real — and permanent — slashing of income-tax rates. Even if that meant rich people would get the bulk of the rewards. Many of Bush’s tax-rate cuts evaporate in a few years. And, years from now the $300 you receive this year will be a vague memory, perhaps manifest in the dust-gathering home gym you bought from a Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley infomercial.

Liberals have mastered the language of “investment.” We are constantly told how we need to “invest” in schools, parks, roads, condoms, fiber optics, lint traps, child-friendly Venetian blinds, dogs, cats, etc., etc. But conservatives rarely make the point that cutting tax rates or establishing incentives for wealth-creation is an investment, too.

The deficit spending of the 1980s that came about in part because of Reagan’s heroic tax cuts — and in part because the Democrats insisted they’d “cut to the bone” a federal government so bloated and flabby it belonged next to the bearded lady in a freak show of over-stretched metaphors. But those cuts amounted to an investment that paid for itself in the 1990s. Unless, that is, you believe Bill Clinton is responsible for a boom which technically began a year before he entered office (you can look it up).

Yes, if the choice is between letting the government have the money and letting taxpayers have it in measly $300 chunks, it’s no choice at all: Give us our &^%$#@ money back! But that doesn’t mean it’s the best of all possible options.

Still, there’s one thing about the rebate that warms my heart — the wonderful irony of how the Lefties are responding to it.

When my $300 rebate comes in the mail, I will be happy to spend it on beef jerky, dog toys, and whatever else suits my fancy. But others may want to donate it to some cause or organization that does good as they see it — the Catholic Church, the United Way, Citizens United To Protect Basset-Hound Habitat (they buy old couches and porches threatened by development), whatever. And other people can simply endorse the check over to the shylocks they borrowed from in order to invest in Salon.com when its stock was at $100 a share.

That’s the beauty of a tax rebate; the government doesn’t tell you what to do with it. For some people, that’s a hard concept to grasp. Which is why I love TaxRebatePledge.org [Now commondreams.org]. Like the DNC, which asked people to give their rebates to — surprise — the DNC, these jokers want you to give your money to any “existing organization that is engaged in the fight against Bush and his agenda.”

“We don’t want you to send us your tax rebate,” they assure their readers. “We don’t want to tell you who to donate your tax rebate to; we’ll leave that to you to decide based on what’s important to you, personally. We just want you to promise that you will use this tax rebate to fund the fight against Bush and his agenda!”

They list dozens of such organizations, all committed to fighting the Bush agenda.

I can think of few things that better embody the Democratic party’s approach to politics. First of all, there’s the whiff of Clintonian “choice” here: You are free to choose any course you want so long as you select from our menu of options.

But there’s a deeper insight to be gleaned here. It reminds me of an argument made in an awful book I reviewed in the Public Interest in 1995 (my first book review!). A permanent student activist named Paul Rogat Loeb argued in Generation At the Crossroads that volunteer groups “take the heat off of corporate and governmental leaders who continue to slash human resources while America’s problems steadily bleed. They can lead service volunteers directly away from asking how America’s root social choices continue to betray the very communities they work to serve.”

The idea here — still fermenting on college campuses and on the stupid TaxRebatePledge.org website — is that a soup kitchen is a wonderful thing, but if it distracts you from petitioning the federal government to run a soup kitchen, then soup kitchens are counterproductive. The endless list of groups at this site doubtless opposed the tax rebate for similar reasons. The assumption is that Washington could do more and better with that cash than these organizations ever could. But even more to the point, these groups define their existence — to some considerable degree — as agents not for the environment or the poor or gays or whatever, but for getting the government to be “for” these things.

Or look at it another way: Consider this $300 rebate a chance for all people — even loopy left-wing activists — to channel their money directly to the folks in charge. If more people could learn that lesson, then the rebate will have been worth it.


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