I was just kidding when I suggested the free porn and puppies in lieu of more subtle bribes, only to be blown out of the water of absurdity by a bipartisan effort to offer cash payments to citizens to “boost the economy,” by which they really mean to buy votes, since they’ve managed to so spectacularly piss off their various constituencies. The Roman Senate knew that you had to keep the head count happy and pacified, because if they ever mobilized en masse, it would be all over for the Senators, and it is no different for our own. Bread and circuses: this half-baked idea combines them both. The end of an empire is nigh.
The fact that this “economic stimulus package” (bribe) is struggling to get passed, crushed under the weight of its own pork, is good news to me. I would prefer it fail. Bushy just announced an unprecedented $3 trillion budget, plus we are, as a country and as individuals, indebted up to our eyeballs. Who has the money for this kind of largesse? We do not, and make no mistake, it is your money. This is your money the government is giving back to you, and to folks who never paid taxes, money not going to our current obligations, like a war in several countries, massive debt to China (among others), and various other bills that didn’t make it into the hat this term. (Could someone remind me exactly how it is that the Republicans are the ones for small government and conservative fiscal policies and spending, please? Because I am, understandably, confused on the point.)
It is a simple rule of personal economics that when you are in debt, you do not go on a spending spree. This will not brighten the overall economic picture for you, guaranteed. I am reminded of a Christmas a some years back. Scott and I were still both teaching, still broke, and had been on a self-enforced austerity plan for longer than either of us cared to remember. To make ends meet, including buying a lot of materials for our respective classrooms, we’d racked up almost $17K in credit card debt, adding to it every month. We were spending almost a car payment servicing the interest alone each month, and weren’t touching the principal at all. Not good.
Nonetheless, we were fed up with never having anything, always being broke, and that year at Christmas we went a little crazy with the gift-buying for each other, all on the credit card, of course. I got a beautiful leather jacket that I’m still wearing 7 years later, and other than that, I couldn’t even tell you what the rest of the money went to or whether we have any of that stuff anymore. But it was a lovely Christmas.
It was lovely right until I got the credit card bill, and nearly hyperventilated when I saw that the minimum payment was over $200 a month, $200 a month that we didn’t have. I was in a cold sweat for months after that, trying to figure out how we’d keep our heads above water. The spending was fun, but the credit hangover was a bitch. And I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know how we’d ever get out from under, and I was more than a little scared. It took a death in the family, and we swore we’d never be so foolish again.
What’s true for a household of 2 people and 2 dogs is true for a nation. You cannot spend money you don’t have without a nasty headache in the morning, and long-lasting repercussions thereafter. And while they’re talking about the $600-1200 you and your family will get, no one’s talking yet about what it’s going to cost to administer a program like this, since they plan to cut checks to each and every one of us. The cost of paper and printing alone will be astronomical considering they will have to be watermarked and anti-counterfeited and such. Then there are the franking costs, and the payroll to hire, train, and oversee the employees that will get this done. It will cost huge money on top of what’s printed on the checks just to get them to us, and we will pay for all of it with money we don’t have. If they were thinking about this in any sensible way, this money would be a tax credit for all those who file, making use of an existing infrastructure to administer the majority of the funds and only writing tax refund checks, as they would’ve anyway, and ad hoc checks to the poorest Americans who do not file an income tax return. Instead, one guy is showing his grasp of the kernel of the situation and spending his energy pushing a bill to make sure that “Buy American!” appears printed on each check, to remind you not to spend your money on foreign (particularly Chinese) goods that only worsen the problem at the national level, if not for you personally.
It’s not going to work, either. If that check comes to my mailbox, I’ll be putting it into my savings account to replace the money I overspent this Christmas as I was busy stimulating the economy. I don’t imagine I’ll be the only one. And you know, I did do my best, but still the economy sank. It is overly facile to say that consumer spending is the single key to economic health, particularly when we’re scolded daily that we’re not saving enough, and wrong for spending money we don’t have via credit cards. If the busiest shopping season of the year wasn’t enough to pull the economy out of its nosedive, why would it make sense that more of the same would do it? Does it really make sense that my cutting back to eating breakfast out only twice a week instead of three times is why Macy’s is laying off 3000 people? I’m thinking not. I’m thinking it has as much to do with the national debt, the house of cards the mortgage companies built and then were crushed under, offshore tax sheltering and tax breaks given to business and the wealthy, the insistence of those at the top of the corporate ladder on making huge salaries and bonuses even as their companies crumble beneath them, and an endless, mind-numbingly expensive war on multiple fronts, just to start.
For those who are struggling now, the promise of a check in 5 months is little solace; they’ll be on the street by then. And even if it comes in time, what will they do the month after that, and the month after that? We need to change the way we think about money, stop spending what we don’t have, and stop dreaming of the chimeras of free lunch. And perhaps once we figure it out, a family at a time, our government “leaders” will as well. Or at least we will be prepared to hold them to the same standard.