The J. Wellington Wimpy Budget Policy
Religion & Liberty Online

The J. Wellington Wimpy Budget Policy

68-wimpyIn a comment last month on the proposed federal budget deal, Sen. Rand Paul quoted one of the foremost economic thinkers of the twentieth century. “There is a recurring theme in Washington budget negotiations. It’s I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. I think it’s a huge mistake to trade sequester cuts now, for the promise of cuts later,” Sen. Paul said.

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” was a catchphrase made famous by J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in the comic strip Popeye. But it also describes, with slight modification, the attitude of Americans to funding government: “I’ll begrudgingly pay you in the future for services provided today.”

Several years ago economist Steve Landsburg made an astute observation about our nonsensical idea about tax relief:

[Y]our tax burden, according to him, is measured by what you’re paying right this moment as opposed to what you’re obligated to pay in the future.

That’s the only possible interpretation of his statement last night that Tea Partiers (and others) should be thanking him for cutting taxes. The reality is that President Obama, like President Bush before him, has rather dramatically raised government spending and therefore has raised your taxes. To say otherwise is like saying you got your new swimming pool for free because you put it on your credit card.

Once the money is spent, the bill must eventually come due—and there’s nobody around to foot that bill except the taxpayers. We are locked into higher current spending and therefore locked into higher future taxes. The president hasn’t lowered taxes; he’s raised and then deferred them. To say otherwise is—let’s be blunt—a flat-out lie.

While President Obama and Congressional Democrats deserves much of the blame for implementing this policy over the past few years, the GOP must take the bulk of the credit for creating this myth of the tax cut. For the past thirty years the “tax cuts cure all ills” has been a nearly inviolable principle for many people who consider themselves to be “economic conservatives.” This idea is neither conservative nor economically sound, of course, but because it has the politically redeeming feature of being wildly popular.

It hasn’t always been this way. While it may be difficult to imagine now, the GOP used to be the party of “deficit hawks” and “balanced budget amendments.” (Seriously, kids, it’s true.) However, now simply complying with balanced budget requirements can make you persona non grata in the Republican Party.

Ironically, the result of thirty years of championing the “taxes are evil” line has not only led to an increased tax burden but has made the GOP the less fiscally responsible of the two major political parties. We now have a choice between Democrats, who offer to spend money on us today and raise our taxes today and Republicans who offer to spend money on us today and raise our taxes (or our grandchildren’s) tomorrow.

68-U.S._Federal_Spending_-_FY_2011Of course, we probably shouldn’t blame them since they are simply giving us what we want — or at least what we wanted in the past. More than two-thirds of our current budget is based on prior commitments that are politically off-limits from spending cuts. Indeed, seventy-nine percent of the budget falls into five “untouchable” categories: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, Interest on the Debt, and other “mandatory” spending.

Now imagine if a group of politicians were to say that we must get serious about balancing the budget by a mixture of significant tax raises on all citizens and deep cuts in each of those “non-discretionary” areas. Americans can’t seem to agree on much, but I can assure you there would be a broad-based, bipartisan opposition to such a proposal that would make the Tea Party rallies look like a little girl’s tea party in comparison.

The sad truth is that while there are many people who love government spending or oppose tax increases or — as is most often the case — love federal spending and oppose tax increases with equal fervor, there are very few true economic conservatives left in America. There certainly aren’t enough of us fiscal realists to alter this irresponsible situation, though it should be an argument that can be made to Christians. As ethicist David P. Gushee recently noted,

Borrowing is emblematic of national weakness that invites subservience to creditors (Deut. 15:6; 28:12). Borrowing for short-term needs risks long-term decline and even enslavement (Neh. 5:3–5). Creditors gain power over debtors (Prov. 22:7), though the powerlessness may not be visible until later.

Borrowing today and sending the bill to future generations is incompatible with Biblical ethics. We must find a way to increase our tribe and convince our fellow Americans that there are no free lunches. For if we don’t change this Wimpy tax policy soon we may find ourselves running out of Tuesdays.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).