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Stimulating Language


There seems a wide consensus that last spring’s fiscal stimulus plan didn’t work. Americans used their $600–1200 rebate checks to pay down debt rather than buy more goodies. But why, this time, did the government fail to achieve its intended outcome?

They used the wrong word. Had it been called a “bonus” instead of a “rebate”, people would have regarded the money differently.

“Rebates” are understood to be returns from money already spent. A rebate, psychologically speaking, is the return of a loss of one’s own money rather than a pure gain provided by someone else, so it is unlikely to be seen as extra spending money. Getting a rebate is more like being reimbursed for travel expenses than like getting a year-end bonus. Reimbursements send people on trips to the bank. Bonuses send people on trips to the Bahamas.

If Speaker Pelosi does push for a second stimulus plan in 2009, I suggest she call it a “windfall”. Even the idea that we need a stimulus implies a problem. If people perceive economic problems and anticipate harder times ahead, they might even be inclined to guard their bonuses. So, lose the word “stimulus”, too.

Tell us we’re doing great, and that the future is going to be so utterly fantastic that Congress has decided to pay us some tomorrow’s windfall today! Even better, such an advance windfall payout would address the injustice of intergenerational income equality.

Children and grandchildren have been getting richer and living better at the expense of parents and grandparents for far too long. It is unfair that the people of the 1820s did not get to enjoy any of the comforts and luxuries available to folks in the 1920s. Isn’t it time we built a bridge across the arc of history to carry tomorrow’s bounty back to the struggling middle class who are giving their lives to enable future success?

Windfalls for everyone!