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Urban Rhythms

Money for Nothing

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/8/2001

If President Bush is trying to buy my vote with his measly, chicken-feed tax rebate--and we all know that that's his game--then he's wasting his money. My $500 rebate was accounted for before the government even cut the check. To turn my head, the president would have needed to come up with three to four times that amount. What does he think I am, some kind of cheap floozy?

Besides, my mind was pretty much made up about the president and his cronies nearly two decades ago. After all, I'm the guy who taught my toddling kids in the 1980s that Ronald Reagan was a bad man and a bad president, just like the evil Skeletor, who used to menace the good guys in their favorite Masters of the Universe cartoons. I had to stop when one of them repeated my description at school and got into trouble. I'm the guy who used to shake my fist and shout, "You dirty, lousy, no-good Republican!" at drivers who cut me off in traffic, until I realized belatedly that I was setting a poor example of bipartisanship for my kids when I used "Republican" as a curse word.

And I'm the guy who even now, in the dead of night, wishes we would send federal troops down South (and to Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court) to arrest all Confederate sympathizers, try them for treason, and hang the most egregious Rebs from a sour-apple tree, just as Yankee soldiers used to sing during the Civil War.

In fact, it would have served me right if Bush had directed the $300 to $600 rebates to my two sons, who are 17 and 21, and just beginning to work and pay taxes. Talk about impact! The Republicans could have bought themselves a pair of converts for life, despite the purpling and prosing of their old man. In fact, their gratitude might even have turned my head. Make my kids happy and you've made me happy.

But the president preferred to give the tax rebate to those who don't need it. It is a symbolic gesture that will have little impact, either on the lives of everyday people or on the political fortune of the president. The majority of American families fall into one of two sharply defined categories: thems that got it and thems that don't. Neither group will benefit from the rebate.

These are boom times for thems that got it, as data just released by the Census Bureau illustrates. The standard of living for the privileged shot up markedly during the 1990s, according to the Census. Incomes are higher, homes are bigger and cost more, and the number of cars per family has grown so sharply that one would think that SUVs are copulating like stoats the moment the garage door closes.

But for thems that got it, the tax rebate barely buys a detail job on their Swinemobiles. It might pay for a night on the town or for a single pair of designer sunshades, but thems that got it take those items for granted. Thems that got it are happy and secure, satiated like they've just had sex. Either the president already has their vote or it would take a five-figure rebate, at least, to even bring them to the bargaining table.

On the other hand, times have never been more desperate for thems that don't got it. Personal bankruptcies remain at record highs and personal savings remain at record lows. Those who have yet to file for bankruptcy are stretched thin and overextended. They live one paycheck away from disaster, one corporate downsizing away from utter ruin. Thems that don't got it drive SUVs too, but they can't afford them. They wear designer sunshades but regret the purchase. They've got that stressed, angry, bitter look of those who have just been screwed. The maximum rebate of $600 for married couples won't even make a dent in their debt. And if they use the money to splurge, they'll feel too guilty afterward to feel grateful.

So the president has beggared the Treasury to make an empty gesture. The country will remain as divided about him as ever. People will take his lousy, chicken-feed tax rebate, but they'll see no reason to feel grateful.

I suspect I'm fairly typical. I spent my rebate the moment I got it. It disappeared as completely as a snowflake on a hot griddle. Yep, I took the president's money, but I don't love him for it. I may be a floozy, baby, but I don't come cheap.

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