By Linda Lutton

I couldn’t wait for my letter from the IRS–the one telling me what my share of Bush’s gigantic tax cut would be–so about three weeks ago I plugged my numbers into the Heritage Foundation’s on-line tax calculator, which has been satisfying impatient tax filers like me since the glorious rebates were announced. My computer screen flashed the news:

“Your Tax Cut in 2001: $0. After it is fully phased in, your tax cut will be $0. Percentage Cut in Taxes $0. Is To Your Total Tax: 0.00%. Fully phased: Percentage Cut in Taxes $0. Is To Your Total Tax: 0.00%. Percentage Increase $0. Is To Your Family Income: 0.00%. Fully phased: Percentage Cut in Taxes $0. Is to your family income: 0.00%.”

OK, my husband and I aren’t raking it in. He’s a muralist (check the employment ads in Section Four to see how many people are looking for one of those); I piece together a living writing two-bit articles like this one. We both work hard–most weeks we put in more than 40 hours–but we don’t have a lot of cash to show for it. Some years, thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit we claim for our two kids, we don’t even owe federal income tax. But since we’re self-employed, we can still owe big bucks in federal payroll taxes. We pay state income taxes, property taxes, and, like everyone else, sales tax. The Heritage Foundation’s tax calculator didn’t seem to care.

But the numbers on my screen got me wondering what this letter from the IRS was going to say. The Democrats tried to stop the letters from going out on the grounds that–besides being a waste of $33.9 million in taxpayer money (more now, since the government messed up on its calculations and told a half million mostly lower-income people they were getting more than they are–gotta send those folks another letter with the bad news)–they were partisan and promotional, to wit: “Thanks to the Congress of the United States and President George W. Bush,” your check is in the mail. (It could have been worse. How about a PS suggesting people keep the letter with their voter registration cards?)

But what would my letter say? How was the IRS going to reconcile that promotional tone with the calculation that my share of the pie was zero dollars, zero cents? Would they still leave that bit in there about how “the new tax law provides immediate tax relief in 2001 and long-term tax relief for the years to come”? Would the government draft a more apologetic letter for me and the 26 percent of other taxpayers–that’s 34 million of us nationwide–who are getting zilch? Maybe something to suggest that now we could go ahead and get rich, because the government isn’t going to take so much of our hard-earned money. (That’s all that’s been holding me back. That and the house note and the gas bill and the price of milk.)

If I wasn’t fond of Bush’s tax cut before, now I’m ready to send the IRS’s letter back with a big “Fuck You!” Magic Markered across it. I’ve just read two books: Fuzzy Math, by Princeton economics professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, delves into the nuts and bolts of the tax cut and says what’s wrong with it. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, is not overtly about the tax cut at all. But it paints a stark picture of the work lives of people who will get the least from the tax cut–the hardworking, taxpaying Americans who make up this country’s low-wage workforce.

Fuzzy Math is short and to the point–a “citizen’s guide” to Bush’s tax cut. In an exceptionally understandable style, Krugman presents the arguments for and against a whopping tax cut. He explains where the government’s money comes from and where it goes, tells us how social security and medicare are funded, compares supply-side to demand-side economics and monetary to fiscal policy, looks at the budget surplus–it’s the stuff that isn’t explained to voters in a presidential campaign, much less afterward when the politicians start drafting legislation. For Krugman, everything comes down to this: Bush lied, and his administration continues to lie. Fuzzy Math shows how.

The numbers the Bush administration used to calculate the budget surplus were based on a Congressional Budget Office projection of a $5.6 trillion surplus over the next decade. One of Krugman’s most poignant arguments shows that the CBO’s surplus projections were made assuming there will be no change in spending other than on social security and medicare over the next decade, after adjusting for inflation. “Suppose that the federal government were to keep real spending on air traffic control constant for the next ten years, so that the number of controllers and the capacity of the radar systems stayed the same for a decade. Would that feel like no change in policy?” Krugman points out that even a conservative definition of “maintaining current policy” should take into account the fact that the U.S. population is expected to grow by about 10 percent over the next decade. The CBO doesn’t. Nor does it assume that spending will remain constant as a percentage of the gross domestic product. In fact, the CBO’s projection assumes a 25 percent decline in that percentage, says Krugman.

“The CBO’s projection isn’t a description of what the budget surplus would be under current policy. It’s a projection of what the budget surplus would be if government programs were radically cut, to levels not seen since the 1950s or earlier. That may be what some politicians want, but it is not the way the projections are being interpreted by the public,” he writes.

It’s unnerving that what Krugman presents here is news. “Why wasn’t this in the newspaper?” I kept wondering as I read. Instead of figuring out whose math was “fuzzy”–an accusation Bush threw at Gore during the campaign–the mainstream press churned out a summary of the “he says-she says” debate between Republicans and Democrats and fed us a steady diet of headlines and newspaper articles that read like government press releases. The Tribune began a May 27 story with a lead that wasn’t true: “With strong bipartisan support in both chambers, Congress passed a $1.35 trillion tax bill Saturday that would give rebate checks to every taxpayer beginning this summer.” Here’s a Sun-Times headline from July 19: “Time to spend, Fed official says.”

When did you see a headline in a mainstream newspaper that said, “Bush surplus projections based on drastic cutback in spending over next 10 years”? Krugman argues that “our press has done nothing to keep the politicians honest.” He writes, “It has become clear that even people who should know better–for example, reporters and television commentators–don’t understand the basics about the federal government: where the money comes from, where it goes, how Social Security works.”

Remember Bush’s “tax families”? Those “typical” photogenic, middle-income families of four earning $40,000 a year for whom Bush’s tax plan represented an annual tax savings of $1,600? “Barely one-tenth of the nation’s families would actually get as much as that ‘typical’ tax cut,” writes Krugman. A single adult with the same income, a family with grown children, a family that hasn’t had children yet, and a family that earns less would all get less. Krugman points out that a family of four earning $30,000 currently pays $750 in income taxes. Under Bush’s plan that family would no longer pay anything in income tax, but would still be responsible for more than $5,000 in payroll taxes. (Eighty percent of us pay more in payroll taxes than we do in income taxes, by the way. In fact, most Americans either pay no income tax at all or are in the 15 percent bracket.) “The families displayed by the administration are carefully chosen to make the tax cut look good,” writes Krugman.

And if you identified with a tax family in a higher bracket–you’re not rich, but you’re well-off–look out for the alternative minimum tax, warns Krugman. The AMT was designed to keep people with high incomes but lots of deductions from paying nothing or next to nothing. “People who find themselves paying the alternative minimum tax are generally furious, but there aren’t many such taxpayers–yet.” Currently, about 1.5 percent of the population pays the AMT. By 2010, that figure should jump to 15 percent, says Krugman. When that happens it’s unlikely that Congress will be able to stand the political heat. But curtailing the AMT would reduce tax revenues, a reduction left out of the projections made to justify the tax cut.

In addition to Bush’s marketing ploys, Krugman knocks down “urban legends” about the federal budget that, however false, seem engrained in the public’s mind-set and almost certainly affect our thinking about taxes and government. That family that had to sell the farm to pay estate taxes? “Only a few percent of the estates that pay taxes include a family business,” writes Krugman. “Furthermore, the existing law gives family businesses and farms special treatment…. Real-life cases of small businesses or family farms that must be sold to pay estate taxes are very rare.” But repeal of the estate tax–which Krugman characterizes as a tax on the “very, very rich”–accounts for nearly a quarter of the total tax break.

Other Krugman factoids expose the paranoia over “big government” to be contrived: “Civilian discretionary spending [that is, federal spending on everything but social security, medicare, and defense] is lower today as a share of the economy than it has been since Dwight Eisenhower–yes, Eisenhower–was president.” Think the U.S. is too generous when it comes to foreign aid? “About 0.6 percent of the federal budget goes for foreign aid, and half of that consists of military assistance to our allies….We are the Scrooges of the advanced world, giving a smaller percentage of our national income in aid than any other major advanced nation.” And he says that while programs like social security and medicare have been expensive, desperate poverty among the elderly has been dramatically reduced, to the point where the elderly are now far less likely to be poor than the average American. “Nowadays children live disproportionately in poverty. You should bear this in mind if you think that we spend too much on public aid.”

Krugman says Bush’s fixation with a tax cut that is “more or less impossible to shoehorn into a responsible budget proposal” is an attempt to straitjacket the economy. Conservatives “want to keep the federal government hungry; they don’t want money readily available to finance new programs, or even to maintain old ones.” Some conservatives, Krugman maintains, “are playing an even deeper game; they believe that they can permanently alter the nation’s political economy, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of government downsizing.” That is, if we receive fewer and fewer services from the government, we’ll be less likely to support government and less willing to fund it. That conservative agenda won’t stop with taxes: “Ultimately it must go after our two big middle-class social programs, Social Security and Medicare, and either eliminate them or transform them into essentially private systems.”

Stay tuned.

Krugman acknowledges that tax cuts are advisable in some instances, and he’s open about which of his conclusions other economists are most likely to disagree with. But he’s unforgiving when it comes to the pitch the Bush administration has used to sell its tax plan. “The arguments made for tax cuts have been startling in their intellectual dishonesty,” Krugman writes. “One might dismiss the untrue things Bush said during the campaign as par for the political course–though I don’t know of any campaign in modern times that has been quite so cynical in its misrepresentations. But what has happened since Bush moved to Washington–the deliberate misstatements and suppression of the facts–is, as far as I know, unprecedented in the history of American economic policy.”

He notes that before Bush took office, the U.S. Treasury Department provided detailed information about the projected effects of proposed tax law changes on different income groups. Prior to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, the House Ways and Means Committee did the same. “Both now refuse to provide those calculations to the public,” writes Krugman, who says it’s been suggested that treasury secretary Paul O’Neill be forced under the Freedom of Information Act to reveal what his staff knows. The numbers the Treasury Department did release, says Krugman, are a “classic demonstration of ‘how to lie with statistics.'”

He concludes, “At every stage of this debate Bush and his people have tried to obscure what they were really proposing. They have radically understated the cost of their plan while overstating the money available to pay for that cost. They have pretended that a plan that mainly cuts taxes for the extremely well off is basically a middle-class tax cut, and they have misrepresented the size of the tax cut that middle-income families will actually receive. And they have falsely sold the plan as an appropriate answer to a short-run economic slowdown, when it is almost perfectly designed not to deal with that sort of problem. I can’t think of any previous administration that has tried to sell its economic plans on such false pretenses. It would be a shame, and a dangerous precedent, if they get away with it.”

Your check is in the mail.

Around the time I was reading Fuzzy Math, a Gallup poll showed that Bush’s approval rating had edged up slightly since June, to 57 percent. Bush got his highest marks on education and taxes: 60 percent of Americans said they approve of the way George W. Bush has been handling taxes.

That 60 percent is an interesting number. Sixty percent of American taxpayers–78 million filers, the majority of us–make less than $44,000 a year. And the majority in that category (62 percent) will get either no rebate check at all or one that’s less than advertised. (My numbers are from Citizens for Tax Justice, a D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan shoestring operation that has one of only three computer models–and the only one outside government hands–that can churn out the information the government is no longer providing.)

Of course, the rebate checks aren’t all there is to the tax cut. In fact, it was the Democrats who first proposed the rebate–though their original proposal would have given $300 to every man, woman, and child in America. (That would have been $1,200 for my family instead of $0.) But Krugman wrote earlier this month in the New York Times, “For four out of five American families, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, this year’s rebate is most of what they will ever get from the Bush tax cut.” A decade from now, when the tax cut is fully phased in, the 60 percent of us now making less than $44,000 a year will get 15.3 percent of the benefits of the tax cut–an average savings of $347 per year. That’s 29 bucks a month, 95 cents a day–not enough to pay for cable TV. Or, if you’re among those who think the poor are poor because they spend their money on frivolous things like cable TV (though it’s a stretch to call 60 percent of the population poor, isn’t it?), the $347 isn’t enough to cover a single month’s rent even in a subsidized apartment (which won’t be subsidized for long after this cut goes into effect).

Meanwhile, 33.5 percent of the benefits will go to America’s wealthiest one percent.

So what gives with a 60 percent approval rating for Bush’s tax plan, when the sum total of its benefits will be less than a dollar a day for the bottom three-fifths of all taxpayers? Did Gallup dial up a disproportionate number of the superrich? Did Bush’s marketing ploys–those photogenic middle-class tax families–work? Krugman notes in Fuzzy Math that the traditional voting pattern, “in which higher-income people vote for tax cutters and lower-income people vote for big spenders, broke down in 2000. Many people in the lower half of the income distribution–people who would…get little or no tax break under the Bush plan–voted Republican.”

Bush doesn’t seem to feel any particular debt to the lower-income folks who supported him. Nine out of the ten states with the highest percentages of people who’ll get either nothing or reduced rebates went for Bush in 2000.

Everybody knows that the cost of a drunk’s vote is a flask. New garbage cans get lots of votes in Chicago. I’ve seen campaign workers on the south side buy votes with tube socks. (The guy with the socks hands the voter a palm card. When the voter comes out of the polling place, he gets his socks.) So maybe $347 isn’t bad by comparison.

Let me clarify. I’m not upset because I won’t get a check, even though my family could have used the money–we’re still trying to pay off last winter’s gas bill. But that’s not what makes me want to return my letter to the IRS with profanities etched across it. I’m upset that all the numbers from Bush’s tax cut add up to less economic security for me and my family–and for most of America. Why would I take that $347 a year in trade for my family’s day care subsidy, or my kids’ health coverage (through medicaid or KidCare, depending on our income, which varies from year to year), or the two years we lived in a subsidized apartment that allowed us to save enough money to buy a house, or the social security benefits that at some point my husband and I will likely rely on (as you might guess from our debt to Peoples Gas, we don’t have a nest egg), or universal public education, however dismal it might be. I believe in the progressive income tax–that is, I think that those who can should pay more, and that the rich can afford to pay a lot–a belief that, though solidly grounded in American political thought, has turned me into a class warrior.

Emblazoned across the bottom of the rebate checks arriving at homes across America is the message: “Tax relief for America’s workers.”

For a frank look at America’s workers–at least the 30 percent who earn less than $8 an hour (and please bear in mind that most of these folks will be getting a reduced rebate check or no check at all)–there’s social critic Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich left her writing and speaking engagements behind to see if she could make it in the low-wage work world at the height of the country’s economic good times, from 1998 to 2000. Toiling as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a maid, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk in three different towns–Key West, Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine–Ehrenreich tried to “match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.” The game was straightforward: spend a month in each city, land a job, and attempt to earn enough money to pay a second month’s rent. Ehrenreich allowed herself some critical advantages–a Rent-A-Wreck, $1,300 start-up money in each town, and her own credit cards to fall back on in case of emergency.

Even though Ehrenreich had “every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer…in a time of exuberant prosperity,” life was hard. In Minneapolis, where she worked as a Wal-Mart “zoner” and spent her days hanging and rehanging Kathie Lee knit dresses for $7 an hour, she never did find an apartment she could afford and spent the month living in motels, one so seedy she couldn’t sleep there and acquired a nervous tic: “plucking away at my shirt or my khakis with whichever hand can be freed up for the task. I have to stop this,” she writes.

Nickel and Dimed is an indictment, but Ehrenreich has woven a streak of sarcastic humor through it. She chose Minnesota over California for her third month of low-wage work because she was turned off by California’s summer heat and allergens, “not to mention my worry that the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves, as they so often do.” In her quests for work she was screened for drugs and underwent zany personality “tests” designed to weed out the potentially criminal and assertive elements of the workforce; and she was shown antiunion corporate videos such as Wal-Mart’s You’ve Picked a Great Place to Work. (“You have to wonder–and I imagine some of my teenage fellow orientees may be doing so–why such fiends as these union organizers, such outright extortionists, are allowed to roam free in the land.”)

The disjunction between Ehrenreich’s real life and her low-wage existence is fodder for some of the wittiest sections of the book. She recounts a day on the job with the Maids, a Portland housecleaning operation where “the rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid’s lips when she’s inside a house.” Ehrenreich is on her hands and knees in 95-degree heat, scrubbing a floor in Mrs. W.’s five-bathroom “big-ass house,” when “I realize that Mrs. W. is staring at me fixedly–so fixedly that I am gripped for a moment by the wild possibility that I may have once given a lecture at her alma mater and she’s trying to figure out where she’s seen me before. If I were recognized, would I be fired? Would she at least be inspired to offer me a drink of water?…Not to worry, though. She’s just watching that I don’t leave out some stray square inch, and when I rise painfully to my feet again, blinking through the sweat, she says, ‘Could you just scrub the floor in the entryway while you’re at it?'”

Ehrenreich details the health, housing, and child care travails of her coworkers–all of them, of course, gainfully employed (some with two jobs) and earning at least a dollar and sometimes two beyond the minimum wage. In Key West, where she got a job as a waitress and eventually–when it became obvious that she wasn’t going to earn enough to pay the second month’s rent–took a second job as a hotel maid, Ehrenreich compiled a survey of the housing situation of her coworkers, which is “in almost every case the principal source of disruption in their lives.”

She writes: “Gail is sharing a room in a well-known downtown flophouse for $250 a week….Claude, the Haitian cook, is desperate to get out of the two-room apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two other, unrelated people….Marianne…and her boyfriend are paying $170 a week for a one-person trailer….Billy, who at $10 an hour is the wealthiest of us, lives in the trailer he owns, paying only the $400-a-month lot fee….The other white cook, Andy, lives on his dry-docked boat, which, as far as I can tell from his loving descriptions, can’t be more than twenty feet long….Tina, another server, and her husband are paying $60 a night for a room in the Days Inn. This is because they have no car and the Days Inn is in walking distance of the Hearthside. When Marianne is tossed out of her trailer for subletting (which is against trailer park rules), she leaves her boyfriend and moves in with Tina and her husband….Joan, who had fooled me with her numerous and tasteful outfits (hostesses wear their own clothes), lives in a van parked behind a shopping center at night and showers in Tina’s motel room. The clothes are from thrift shops.”

Throughout Nickel and Dimed Ehrenreich takes note of her coworkers’ crooked teeth, inadequate footwear, and other signs that their paychecks don’t cover even basic necessities. A coworker in Key West is plagued by migraines because she doesn’t have enough money for the estrogen supplements she needs to ward them off (she should be on the company’s health plan by now but the paperwork was lost). A cut on a roofer’s foot leads to unemployment when he can’t afford an antibiotic. How poor were the people Ehrenreich worked with in Portland? “Half-smoked cigarettes are returned to the pack. There are discussions about who will come up with fifty cents for a toll…. One of my teammates gets frantic about a painfully impacted wisdom tooth and keeps making calls from our houses to try to locate a source of free dental care.” When Ehrenreich’s cleaning team discovered one day that they’d forgotten scouring pads, they had to drive back to the office for them, since “we cannot put together $2 between the four of us” to purchase some at a nearby store. Lunches consisted of hot dog rolls, pizza pockets, Doritos, and soda. “I get dizzy sometimes,” said a coworker when asked how she gets through eight- and nine-hour days without eating.

Nickel and Dimed is laced with footnotes citing studies and statistics that make it clear the problems Ehrenreich encountered aren’t unique. What share of the homeless is employed?: nearly one-fifth. The year in which the right to a bathroom break was guaranteed by federal law: 1998. The number of Americans holding two or more jobs in 1996: 7.8 million. The number of affordable rental units available to every 100 low-income families in 1991: 47. The number available in 1997: 36.

And so on.

Ehrenreich concludes that “something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high….I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success….No one ever said that you could work hard–harder even than you ever thought possible–and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”

A study released last month by the Economic Policy Institute found that 29 percent of working families with up to three children under 12 do not earn enough to afford the basic necessities. The study found that a no-frills budget for a family of four that included health care and licensed child care–almost no one in Nickel and Dimed has either–ranged from $27,000 to $52,000, depending on location. Yet the national median no-frills budget, $33,000, is roughly twice the federally defined poverty line for a family that size. “This issue has outgrown terms like ‘welfare’ and ‘poverty,'” said former Clinton administration official Peter Edelman in a recent editorial broadcast on National Public Radio. “The problem plagues millions of people who don’t define themselves by either of those labels, and don’t want to.”

Everything in Ehrenreich’s book, and in the EPI study, suggests that this country needs to expand work supports like health care, child care subsidies, and affordable housing assistance to cover at least a third and maybe even half of us–the ones with salaries that don’t cover basic expenses. Last year I landed a windfall–a six-month gig with a community organization that paid more than I’ve ever been able to make as a freelance journalist. But as the months went by I began to worry. The temp job was threatening our day care subsidy–it looked like we were going to end up a couple thousand dollars over the ceiling for a family of four with two kids in day care, which in Illinois is $25,975 (a figure that hasn’t been adjusted since 1997). Worried, I called a representative from the Day Care Action Council of Illinois. She said we weren’t alone. It isn’t uncommon for the council’s clients to turn down promotions and raises to avoid losing the child-care subsidy.

To get around our making too much, I arranged for the community organization to make its final payment to me in 2001 instead of 2000. My muralist husband ordered a lot of paint, which for him is a business expense that effectively reduced our income. These maneuvers were options only because we’re both self-employed.

Two weeks ago the U.S. Treasury Department announced that instead of paying off $57 billion of the federal debt during the fourth quarter of the fiscal year, which is what the Treasury promised before the tax-cut package was passed, it now plans to borrow $51 billion. Last January the department was projecting a surplus of $281 billion for the fiscal year, which ends September 30. Now the Bush administration is saying the surplus could be as little as $160 billion. It’s a drop that, some economists believe, could force the administration and Congress to break into that famous “lockbox” and raid social security surpluses to pay for tax cuts and government spending.

I went to buy Fuzzy Math at Unabridged Books, an independent bookseller in Lakeview. The employee who looked up the title noted its topic and said, “Oh yeah, I got a whole dollar more in this paycheck because of the tax cut. My boss makes more than me and he got six dollars more in his check.”

That’s how it works.

I’ve been secretly hoping that the people like me who get a letter from the IRS telling them Bush’s tax cut is giving them nothing, nada, zilch, will form some kind of critical mass opposing further implementation of this monster. Maybe it’s too bad that Congress capped the rebate checks at $300 for a single filer, $600 for married couples. Progressive legislators should have pushed to divvy up the money in a way that reflected the breaks taxpayers will get once the tax cut’s fully phased in–that is, paltry checks or nothing at all for most of us, millions for the superwealthy. That might have awakened us all.

One of Ehrenreich’s biggest frustrations was the resignation of workers to their situation. In Portland she noted just two forms of rebellion, “and neither of them challenges the vaulting social hierarchy above us.” One was theft, the other “public violations of The Maids’ code of decorum”–i.e., driving fast through clients’ neighborhoods while blasting rap music with profane lyrics. “For the most part, my coworkers seem content to occupy their little niche on the sheer cliff face of class inequality,” writes Ehrenreich. When she suggested to a young Wal-Mart coworker that “what we need is a union…from the look on his face I might as well have said gumballs or Prozac.”

What does it cost to buy the compliance of workers? Free doughnuts every morning at the Maids. The privilege of parking the van one worker was living out of behind the restaurant in Key West. The hope of someday making 75 cents more an hour at Wal-Mart.

What does it cost to convince the public to jeopardize some fairly critical public services–air traffic controllers, FDA inspectors, social security checks, repairs to public schools, health care coverage for the elderly and poor? A measly $347 a year?

Of the Americans who are getting rebate checks, 47 percent say they’ll use the money to pay off bills. If I were getting a check that’s what I’d do–sign it right over to Peoples Gas. A recent USA Today article detailed what Bush administration officials will be doing with their checks. White House strategist Karl Rove intends to buy something for his dog, Daisy. Multimillionaire defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld is going to pay his accountant to figure out his finances now that the tax cut has passed. White House budget director Mitch Daniels is going to give his rebate to his daughter. “Meredith showed me the money in her bankbook, and I promised to match it,” Daniels told USA Today.

Around the time the USA Today story came out, vice president Dick Cheney was petitioning to have taxpayers pick up the $186,000 electric bill at his government-supplied home. (Cheney made $36 million last year.) Bush recently put in a request for $5.8 million for repairs to the White House; $430,000 would go to the swimming pool–that’s about 21 times what my family earns in a year. Like Ehrenreich says in her book, Why do we stand for this??

I have an idea. I think all of our political representatives should be forced to live, while they’re in office, at the median income level of their constituents. That means George W. and Laura and the twins would have to live on $40,800. Our political representatives would be stripped of anything that sets them apart financially from the average constituent–no stock portfolios, no huge bank accounts, no free housing (we could turn the White House into a museum), no maids, gardeners, or cooks. (You say the president and his wife are busy people? What do you think Americans who work two jobs are?) And certainly no corporate gifts. If George and Laura had to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and college tuition on $40,800, that tax cut would last about as long as a streaker on the White House lawn.

Near the end of her tenure at Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich was watching TV in the break room when a story about a high-profile strike came on the news. There was one other worker in the room. She “jumps up, grinning, and waves a fist in the air at the TV set. I give her the rapid two-index-fingers-pointing-down signal that means ‘Here! Us! We could do that too!’ She bounds over to where I’m sitting…and says, ‘Damn right!'”

One good thing about Bush’s tax cut–the poor and middle class get theirs now. Of course, that means pain later. Robert McIntyre, executive director of Citizens for Tax Justice, says that “over the upcoming years, average taxpayers will pay dearly for this tax cut plan in reduced public services, a return to budget deficits or, most likely, both.” But it also means there might be time to keep the worst from happening, to derail the cuts that will redistribute gargantuan amounts of money back to the very rich. Most of those kick in between 2004 and 2010.

Look, those of us who live in families that make less than $44,000 per year are the majority (60 percent). Those of us making less than $72,000 per year are the vast majority (80 percent). And I am suggesting that the majority of us can make it politically impossible for the bulk of these tax cuts–which will do us no good at all–to ever be implemented. We need to become less ho-hum about the tax cut and start thinking about its effects 5 or 10 or 20 years from now on our families, our retirements, and our children. More of us will probably have to vote–especially more of us who find ourselves in the bottom three-fifths of income earners. We’ll have to remind the politicians that the majority rules, and the majority ain’t rich.

Some tax-cut resisters have suggested donating the rebate checks to progressive organizations. I’ll recommend two–Citizens for Tax Justice (keep that computer running) and the Children’s Defense Fund.

CDF pushed vigorously to have Bush’s expanded tax credit for children be awarded as a refund whenever it turned out to be bigger than the overall income tax bill. That’s the only way it’d help the poorest third of the nation’s kids. Thanks to CDF the child credit’s now at least partially refundable, and this provision and a tweaking of the Earned Income Tax Credit are solely responsible for a slight shift in benefits to lower- and middle-income people. The bottom three-fifths of American tax filers will now get 15 percent of the tax cut’s benefits, as opposed to the 11 percent Bush had proposed for us.

CDF is now lobbying for expanded health care coverage for children and their parents and for universal child care and preschool. Good causes worth remembering at rebate time. But if it turns out that you’re one of the 34 million taxpayers who’ll get nothing–or if you have to use your refund to pay your bills–write whatever moves you on your letter from the IRS and send it back. And keep your voter registration card handy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.