With gridlocked Washington unable to choose between the two great economists Keynes and Hayek, some leaders of both parties seem to be embracing the philosophy of another influential thinker: the immortal J. Wellington Wimpy.
Wimpy, the rotund moocher who appeared for decades as a regular feature in “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons and comic books, became famous for his distinctive declaration: “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!”
More recently, the president of the United States told a joint session of Congress: “I will gladly pay you a week from Monday for a $445 billion jobs bill today!” Amazingly enough, some Republicans, and nearly all members of his own party, seem prepared to go along with him.
In a sorrowful display of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, President Obama seems to have forgotten all about the great debate over exploding deficits that consumed official Washington for most of the summer. As if he’d downed a can of spinach, the pumped-up president focused almost exclusively on spending, not cutting—with lavish new “investments” in high-speed rail, school reconstruction, solar panels, and the like. Rather than raising revenue, Obama proposed slashing payroll taxes to an extent that no Tea Party true believer would dare to propose. The White House officially estimated that the proposal to cut payroll tax rates in half would keep $240 billion out of the Treasury in 2012 alone. By contrast, his previous demand to terminate the Bush tax cuts for “millionaires and billionaires” would raise revenue by a scant $70 billion a year.
Despite the alarming cost, the president demands instantaneous action on his proposals. As for those nagging questions about how our bankrupt government could suddenly find the dough to finance a new stimulus … er, jobs … package of $445 billion, Obama put all the worrywarts at ease. “Everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything,” he solemnly intoned.
No doubt someone will pay, at some point—but it’s not likely to be this generation of Americans, or this particular Congress. Every American household now owes more than $140,000 as its share of the national debt, and the new program could add as much as $4,000 more to your family’s indebtedness.
As for the pledge to repay all the borrowed money, the president shamelessly recycled the J. Wellington Wimpy approach, repeatedly demanding “pass this bill right away” but promising to reveal how to pay for it only “a week from Monday,” when the congressional supercommittee hears the administration’s long-awaited plan on how to confront the fiscal mess. The panel’s assignment to come up with $1.5 trillion in cuts over 10 years will now rise to a full $2 trillion, but what’s another half a trillion among friends?
The most amazing aspect of the current situation is the apparent willingness of some prominent Republicans to go along with the administration’s approach. In June and July, GOP House leaders seemed willing to sacrifice everything, even their own indescribably precious seats in Congress, for the sake of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction. Now the delightful prospect of big payroll tax reductions for every working American, amounting to $1,500 for a family earning $50,000 a year, seems to have pushed aside pleas and pledges about to a balanced budget.
Once again, Wimpy logic rules Washington. The big tax cuts will come immediately, covering the 10 months leading up the next election. The “payment” will come later, after the politicians are safely reelected, and will be backloaded to the last years in the decadelong period for which our courageous representatives promised some combination of cuts and revenue enhancements. But then, some future Congress might well discover another national emergency that enables them to keep delaying the day of reckoning.
Meanwhile, we’re supposed to spend untold billions to speed up our trains and spruce up our airports. On the eve of the 9/11 commemorations, the president tried to rally the nation’s patriotic spirit by suggesting that we’re locked in a desperate competition to see which nation can hold on the longest to railroads, the dominant travel technology of the 19th century. “Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us an economic superpower. And now we’re going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads?” he wailed. “This is inexcusable.” Actually, the space race against the Russians, which America won by placing the first man on the moon, involved rivalry in building the technology of the future, but the president’s oddball obsession with rail lines involves costly competition to preserve the technology of the past.
Obama’s jobs bill may persuade weary and wary Americans to rally to his support and lift his chances for electoral victory, but no one really expects the costly legislation to produce a volcanic eruption of new jobs. The generally pro-Obama New York Times featured a Saturday headline proclaiming: “Employers Say Jobs Plan Won’t Lead to Hiring Spur.”
There is, however, a single aspect of the whole sorry situation that might count as genuine good news: the Wimpy-like impulse to put off payment for current indulgences means that in one respect our posturing politicians are at last looking beyond the horizon and considering the future. When it comes to paying the nation’s bills, these noble statesmen are definitely thinking of the next generation.