As tax-season approaches and I study a heating bill of $300 we racked up, despite a thermostat set at 55 degrees every night and a freakishly warm winter, remembering the president's $300 check warms my heart, if not my house. It was such a change of pace, coming after so much financial frugality! In 1998 we began, for the first time in a quarter century, to pay down a national debt then at $3.8 trillion, today $8 trillion. But as the Bush administration and many economists remind us, debt pay-downs were a historical anomaly of the dot-com 1990s. All that decade's extra tax revenue belonged to the people, not the government. Besides, debt does not matter. Paying it off is as stupid as investing big in some Internet startup and is so, well, Clinton-era.
But it was a new day in '01, baby, and our government agreed: Here's a $300 check to buy the goodwill of a nation still troubled after a very dubious election. According to a story from the CNN archives, $98 million of the tax rebate checks went in the mail in the late summer of 2001. Singles got $300, couples $600, and those hard-working single moms a whopping $500 to help out with day care, clothing, school supplies, fuel, food well, maybe they need a second job and can leave the kiddie with grandma. When the checks began going into the mail, I read that our retailers were delighted.
It's not unusual that we've forgotten the one-time handout to a broad swath of Americans. All events and images then were replaced by twin pillars of fire in New York that left a smoldering need for revenge everywhere. The nation's overnight transition from Utopian consumerism to an often-unthinking hyperpatriotism would have disgusted me if I did not combine two unfortunately bipartisan qualities: hypocrisy and pessimism. As a hypocrite, I returned only part of my rebate to local charities. And as a pessimist about human nature, I realized that Bush would probably get away with burning through the unique budget surplus he inherited, as he had done with so many other things, faster than a high-stakes player in a hot game of Texas Hold'em.
At least until he was long out of office and the bills came due.
Today, the same Bush team croons about robust economic growth and promises us a good year ahead. That makes it reasonable for them to stroke us a few more checks. Why not? The federal government is bankrupt already, visible every time I hit the "reload" button at the doleful Web site U.S. National Debt Clock (Google it and gnash your teeth, dear reader). This is real money, and China holds the paper for at least three in eight of these notes. What would another $30 billion or $50 billion matter?
So I say to the federal government, which cannot seem to balance the ledger in the same way as Virginia and many other responsible states do: As long as you are squandering money, send us all some more. Less affluent Americans could use it. A co-worker tells me that she and her husband will have to turn off the furnace next month in order to buy groceries. But they have a fireplace to cuddle around and full-time jobs, by George!
Certainly, our lobbyist-financed representatives and senators don't want ordinary people to think them stingy or worse, that we might live today in a neo-Victorian world where the haves get tax breaks while the have-nots are left holding the bills and, if they are dreamers, a few lottery tickets. But I am no economist. I cannot tell you whether "economic growth" factors in increased working hours without benefits, a loss of family time, the quality of education among workers competing in a global market or the need to go into debt to cover necessities.
But this is not the Victorian age. So I say to the president: Sir, I'd like some more, please. S
Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.
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