Driving around a leafy Fairfield County, Conn., town the other day, I came upon a not uncommon sight. A woman sat behind the wheel of a midnight blue BMW so brand new that the gummy residue of the dealer’s sticker was still visible on the window; in the back seat, a pile of Howard Dean yard signs spilled onto the floor.
Intent on divining a trend, I mounted a search for other such juxtapositions of conspicuous consumer spending and conspicuous anti-Bush sentiment. At both the macro and micro levels, there’s plenty of evidence that well-off liberals are using their increased disposable income — much of which can be attributed to the Bush tax cuts — to sate their desires for luxury goods and for political revenge. This odd condition of consumerist self-indulgence and political indignation — fueled by the same source — has reached epidemic proportions in areas where high-income Democrats tend to congregate. Many people I know are finding themselves simultaneously coping with a sense of greater well-being and a niggling sense of unease when they stop to consider to whom they owe their good fortune.
For lack of a better name, you could call it Bushenfreude.
We’ve all seen the symptoms. A table of four raging over Bush’s Iraq policy while sampling the $58 tasting menu at Virot, an expensive new bistro on the Upper West Side. A middle-aged man clucking over the deficit while fondling home furnishings at Restoration Hardware. The thirtysomething lawyer seething over the neutering of the Environment Protection Agency with one side of her brain, while weighing that classic conundrum—Cape Cod or Tuscany next summer?—with the other side.
Bushenfreude began in the summer of 2001, when the first Bush tax cut rebates were sent. Back then it was easy to deal with those onetime windfalls if you resented the source. You could send the check back, or sign it over to People for the American Way. Refusing to spend it—and hence refusing to stimulate the economy—was a gratifying protest against Bush’s risky skewed-to-the-wealthy tax scheme. Yet in the aftermath of Sept. 11—particularly in New York—promptly spending any disposable cash seemed to be the right thing for the right-thinking to do.
This year’s tax cuts—which brought a fresh round of rebates, speeded up the already-enacted marginal rate reductions and cut taxes on capital gains and dividends—gave liberal beneficiaries yet more cause to squirm. Many higher-income families weren’t eligible for the rebates, so it was harder for them to dispose of them symbolically.
Instead, over the past several months, the tax cuts have quietly wormed their way into our financial lives. Many people won’t calculate the taxes they owe on dividends until next spring, for example. Psychologically, it’s nice to regard today’s larger paycheck as the consequence of a raise you so richly deserve but that your employer has been too cheap to actually give you.
As an economic strategy, the tax cuts have plainly worked. People—particularly high-income people—are feeling wealthier and are buying more goods and services. But it’s a questionable political strategy. Bush’s tax cuts don’t seem to have converted many Democrats, particularly the high-income Democrats who fuel his opponents’ campaigns. Wealthy Democrats generally would prefer to pay less taxes rather than more, but they don’t wake up each morning raging at the government’s confiscation of their income. Their dander is far more easily aroused by attempts to stock the bench with right-wing ideologues, or by Dick Cheney’s insistence on linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11, or by the general hash the president has made of trade and fiscal policy.
In fact, many wealthy Democrats are just getting angrier. Groups like the Center for American Progress have tapped into the growing pool of Bush-hostile capital. Billionaire trader George Soros, perhaps one of the single largest beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts, has made defeating President Bush “the central focus of my life.” He has contributed at least $15 million to anti-Bush groups. The tax cuts have also made more money available for less-wealthy (but just as angry) liberals to buy best-selling anti-Bush screeds like Big Lies, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, or The Great Unraveling. And those who have been so amply rewarded for Bush-bashing—that’s you, Joe Conason and Al Franken and Paul Krugman—will get to keep a much bigger chunk of their royalty payments.
Bushenfreude is only likely to intensify if the economy continues to recover. So we had all better learn to cope and start dispelling the stigma surrounding the dread condition. In my darker moments, when I contemplate twin Excel files showing the ever-more imminent bankrupting of Social Security and my projected tax payments for 2003, I, too suffer from a mild case of the malady. But rather than buy David Corn’s Lies of George W. Bush or make a political contribution, I calculate how much I’m saving in taxes. Then I put a fraction of that sum in a retirement plan. After all, the fiscal recklessness of the past few years means I’m highly unlikely to get the Social Security benefits to which I’m theoretically entitled. I also put a fraction of that sum in an account for my kids, who will have to foot the bill for this party when they grow up. And then—and only then—do I go to Dean & DeLuca and search for that perfect manchego.