Payroll tax extension, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. // I hate thee to the depth and breadth and height // My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight // For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. // I hate thee to the level of everyday’s // Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. // I hate thee freely, as men strive for Right. // I hate thee purely as they turn from Praise.

OK, I won’t massacre the beauty of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry any more, but it just isn’t Valentine’s Day without reading “How do I love thee?” (Seriously, do it!)

More relevantly, why do politicians continue to debate this patently poor policy as though it represents the pinnacle of politically savvy middle-class tax cuts? It’s not even technically a tax cut — just a premature borrowing from our own retirement safety net, which happens to be in dire straits anyway.

Yet, Barack Obama is back to the same shtick, insisting that “we can’t wait” to pass a payroll tax cut extension. I paraphrase: “C’mon Congress, won’t you please just be serious about my silly, transparent politicking?”

National Journal pays the president more respect by actually quoting him:

President Barack Obama again pushed Congress Tuesday to extend payroll tax cut legislation “without drama and without delay.” Obama, speaking from the White House, said there were hopeful signs that Congress would be able to reach an agreement on a package to extend the payroll tax cut, along with federal unemployment insurance and a “fix” for doctors facing a cut in Medicare reimbursement.

“That is good news,” Obama said. “But as you guys know, you can’t take anything for granted here in Washington until my signature is actually on it.”

As he did two months ago, Obama again reached out to the public to keep pressure on lawmakers.

“I’m asking the American people to keep their stories coming. Tell us what $40 means to you,” Obama said. He has repeatedly said that losing the payroll tax cut would mean 40 dollars less in the average pay check. “Call, tweet, write your congressmen, write your senators, tell them, do not let up until this job gets done,” he said.

What does an extra $40 mean to me? Hmm. That sounds like a prompt for an essay contest. My essay would include a little something like this: “It means a luxurious, imagined trip to the bookstore, which I won’t have time to take, or more money for the grocery store, which I never visit anyway, opting instead to live off cold coffee and Fiber One bars.”

Unfortunately for the president, $40 more in the back pockets of most Americans doesn’t translate into any kind of meaningful boost to the economy. It hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work this time, either.

Consider:

  • According to a poll from The Hill, the majority of Americans said in January that the payroll tax cut extension hasn’t benefitted them.
  • According to a poll from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a majority of Americans were actually completely unaware that their paychecks were larger as a result of the payroll tax cut. Those who were aware allocated the money responsibly — but you can bet the little “boost” to the clueless didn’t end up where economists wished it would.

Such polls imply that the payroll tax cut extension isn’t even good politics — even if a majority of Americans say they support it. It’s not as though we’re aware enough of that extra $40 in their paychecks to reward politicians for it.

The president’s push to Congress also makes little sense in light of Speaker John Boehner’s announcement yesterday that House Republicans will introduce a clean payroll tax cut extension for the year. If Democrats are so keen to extend the cut, they’ll be able to — without any riders at all. I’d prefer to see Republicans continue to make the case against the payroll tax cut as policy (that’s what truly good representatives would do!), but, if they’re going to play this game, they’d at least better win. I really don’t want the extension to be passed, but at this point, a lack of passage will be a cause for blame, not credit. Paint those Democrats into a corner, Mr. Boehner! Then, after November 2012, dispense with the stupid tax holiday once and for all, save the drama for your mama and, when you talk about Social Security, talk about actual, comprehensive reform.