Neal St. Anthony: Rebate might be boost now, but we'll pay for it later

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2008 - 8:49 PM

Business gets some breaks in the Bush stimulus plan, too. But thinking and investing for the long-term is what we need.

President Bush is set to sign the $168 billion plan to juice the economy. My hand is out. I'm happy to accept what could be an $1,800 check, including child tax credits, that the politicians have promised my household.

My parents managed to make do most years on a very modest salary for a family of six. My father counseled me to avoid bars, full-retail price and to pinch nickels so I'd have a few bucks in a pinch. I didn't always heed the advice. My rebate will go into a reserve fund, pledged against a few thousand bucks outstanding on a home-equity loan.

Most economists say that this economic stimulus will be a nice boost that may get us through 2008 without an official recession.

The working poor -- the folks who labor at one or two jobs to cobble together a household income of $35,000 or less -- are going to stimulate some sales at Wal-Mart and secondhand stores, or maybe pay off a past-due heating bill. They spend every dime. The affluent are as likely to bank the money, buy a Treasury bill or take a vacation with their rebate, the economists say.

And there's some help for businesses in the package. Mark Sellner, director of graduate studies in taxation at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Business, said Monday that two little-noticed provisions of the tax package, resurrected from the 2001-02 economic recovery package, will permit businesses to deduct up to 50 percent of equipment purchases this year, and liberalize expenses for small businesses.

"The business stimulus would seem to be a better job-creation-retention policy," Sellner said. "For the bonus depreciation provisions, only new equipment qualifies, so someone has to make it and someone else has to run it, so two jobs are affected. On the other hand, a client once told me he needs more revenue, not more deductions. The rebates put money back into the consumer economy immediately."

Let's hope that this extra $168 billion on the government's credit card, on top of the $500 billion in borrowed money for the Iraq war, juices the economy this year and beyond. Still, this is a pittance compared with the total federal debt, including Social Security borrowings.

Frankly, I think it will take a few years to get through the real-estate bubble and the credit crunch visited upon us by greedy bankers, fast-talking brokers and dumb consumers.

Borrow more to send guys like me free money on the public tab? I don't like mortgaging my kids' future to the Saudis and Chinese who buy tons of our debt.

I'm an independent and political moderate. And please don't call to complain if you or your grandmother are on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, ethanol subsidies or low-interest federal loans. We are the problem.

Long term, our next government, whether Republican or Democrat, will have to start walking the talk on thrift, sacrifice and investment. That's also two-fisted patriotism, not the borrow-and-spend kind. Otherwise we are going to be in big trouble.

As Fred Zimmerman, the retired industrialist and University of St. Thomas business professor said in Monday's business section, baby boomers like me are going to have to suck it up and work and pay taxes into our 70s. We're going to have to delay the entitlements or we'll bury our kids with debt.

We should hire enough IRS agents to collect a chunk of the up to $400 billion it's estimated that tax cheats fail to pay annually.

And we're going to have to favor a tax system that encourages innovation, thrift, long-term growth and debt reduction over financial speculation and the vapid consumption that has made us a weaker nation in a deeper hole.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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