Tax rebate checks are going out to millions of taxpayers (and some people without enough income to pay taxes) to prop up our sagging economy and help folks who aren't doing very well.
But giving umbrellas to people stuck in a hurricane doesn't really help much. And for those in the middle and the bottom of our economy, the past few decades have indeed battered them like a hurricane. No longer does a rising tide lift all boats. While we've been busy becoming two-income workaholic families rowing our little dinghies, the captains of industry have turned our economy into their own floating casino where they make all the rules â and surprise! â the house always wins.
So not only are the rebate checks a drop in the bucket, they don't get to the underlying problems. It's no accident that the big yachts have risen significantly during the past few decades while more modest boats have taken on water and are sinking. It's not just that some have learned to bail and pump better than others. The rules are rigged.
Unlike the weather, which follows rules of nature, our economy follows rules made by humans. Not only can those rules be changed, but we know where the power is to demand those changes. It's in the power of the majority, the people who during the past few decades have not fared well economically compared to the significant gains of the wealthiest minority. In other words, it's the same people who are getting the rebates.
According to the IRS, 130 million households will receive these rebate checks. The census bureau says that we average about two adults per household. So we're talking about more than twice the number of individuals, 126 million, who voted in the 2004 national election. That's a lot of potential power.
But we sure don't feel very powerful standing at a gas pump paying $4 per gallon, when oil companies make record profits for their investors and oil executives make 400 times what average workers make. And we don't feel very powerful standing in line at Wal-Mart buying $3 T-shirts made in China and handing our credit card to a part-time worker who can't get health insurance.
As individuals, we can't change the rules to make the economy better serve the needs of 130 million households simply by making good economic choices. In an election year, we tend to blame the incumbent and put all our hopes on the new nominee, but in case you think that changing the president will significantly change the economic rules, please note that tax cuts for the wealthy happened under Bill Clinton as well.
No, the president, even with Congress, doesn't have much power to change the economic rules. All their policy negotiations are with lobbyists who have much more clout than they have: More clout with corporate leaders, more clout with the media and more clout with the wealthy.
But imagine the clout of 260 million rebate check receivers â 85 percent of the entire U.S. population. If we could all organize and demand an economy that works for us, the president, congress and all the lobbyists in the world couldn't stop us.
We could cap CEO pay, establish a living minimum wage, require trade deals to be more fair, tax wealthy investors more than their secretaries, support unions, and so on. And we could measure the impact by tracking economic inequality. Is the economy lifting all boats or is it lifting the big boats a lot more?
If you're receiving a rebate check this spring and summer, it's because our economy needs you. So, you could just go shopping, or you could use it as a reminder to start making the economy change. For example, you could join a group or coalition that's working to make the economy more fair. Separately, we can change little. Together, we can change much.
Your rebate check is a reminder that our economy is not working well for you and 260 million like you.
Yes, our economy needs you, to start making it change.
Bob Keener is communications director at United for a Fair Economy, an independent organization raising awareness about the dangers of growing inequality. firstname.lastname@example.org.