Politics

Rebate Revolt

An online movement to donate tax refunds to progressive causes may actually vindicate conservative tax policy.

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An online movement to donate tax refunds to progressive causes may actually vindicate conservative tax policy.

By Sara Rimensnyder

Those much-anticipated federal tax rebates are officially wending their way from the U.S. Treasury to taxpayers' mailboxes. The last two digits of your Social Security number determine when you'll get your share of the $39 billion pot. If all goes well, $300 to $600 checks should arrive in time to help you cover your October rent at the very latest.

But what some see as a hard-earned rebate, others see as grounds for revolution. A half-dozen or so Web sites are protesting the Bush tax cut plan, and they're focusing their ire specifically on its most immediate manifestation. With names like RejecttheRebate.com, such sites urge taxpayers to control their consumerist twitch and instead pledge their rebate checks to charity. The organizers of the sites figure that giving your rebate to "one or many of the nonprofit groups opposing the destructive policies of the Bush administration" is the best anti-George II gesture that money can buy.

"It's very much a political statement," says Michael Kieschnick, president of Working Assets, a charity-oriented company that, among other projects, created GiveforChange.com. GiveforChange offers a total of $1 million in matching funds to taxpayers who transfer their rebate via credit card to any of the 300-plus nonprofits listed on the site.

Kieschnick says that about 100 people have donated so far–which means that at least 100 taxpayers trust the IRS enough to spend the cash without the check in hand. "This drive is very much a grassroots idea that arose organically,"says Kieschnick when asked what kind of participation he expects. "I'd be stunned if we didn't use up the full $1 million match."

Giveforchange.com appears to be the only pledge site that accepts payments and actually routes the money to charities. The rest—including DonateYourRebate.com, MoveOn.org, and RejecttheRebate.com, are dunning people only for a "moral commitment" to hand over the money to good progressive causes.

Joan Blades, one of the proprietors of MoveOn.org, says her site has logged 714 of such promises so far. (The fact that her response rate is so much higher than Kieschnick suggests what everyone already knows: talk is cheaper than cold, hard cash.) Unlike GiveforChange.com and most of the other sites, Blades' endeavor is not simply political in a broad sense, but actually partisan: GiveforChange asks that participants pledge their donations to the reelection campaigns of politicians who are against the Bush plan.

Individuals freely spending their income as they see fit? More power to 'em. But that doesn't sound particularly progressive, does it? Indeed, these Web-based protestors don't seem to realize that their campaign doesn't demean Bush's policy. In fact, if it's successful, it will be nothing short of a resounding affirmation of a timeworn conservative argument for tax cuts: Good things happen when you let people decide how to spend their own money.

I tried to sell that idea to Kieschnick, but the amiable businessman wasn't buying. "I have this argument with my kids all the time," he says. "They say, 'You know, jeez, we pay too much in taxes.' I say for the most part the taxes do good things." Regardless, Kieschnick's children will have a powerful new argument if donors do max out GiveforChange's matching funds.