Economists tell us America has sufficient financial wherewithal to fix its debt problem. We have insufficient political will however. The Book of Jonah tells us why. Resolving our debt problem requires recognizing fallen human nature—not appealing to it.
Over the last few months, Washington politicians have wrangled over rewriting the U.S. tax code. “Fat cat” millionaires and write-offs for corporate jets catch most of the flak, but they are only a small part of the solution. To close its deficits, American must also cut middle-class subsidies.
“Broad tax breaks granted to millions of families at all income levels dwarf the corporate giveaways,” writes Lori Montgomery in a recent Washington Post article. “Over the past two years, largely because of these popular benefits in the federal income tax code, the government has reached a rare milestone in tax collection—it has given away nearly as much as it takes in.”1 To be exact, federal taxpayers last year received $1.08 trillion in credits and deductions while paying $1.09 trillion in income taxes.
Only about 8 percent of the $1.08 trillion in benefits goes to corporations (write-offs for corporate jets only equal about .03 percent of that amount). The solution isn’t soaking the rich, since there aren’t enough rich people to pay the bill. The Economist notes the richest 1 percent of Americans already pay more than a quarter of all federal taxes and fully 40 percent of income taxes. “Higher taxes on them alone cannot close America’s deficit.”2
The solution is also cutting government spending. Republicans and Democrats agree that this must be done but, as Edward Kleinbard, a University of California law professor notes, over the last 25 years, the U.S. government has created a system of disguising spending programs as tax breaks. The bulk of these tax benefits go to middle-class families. Today, they receive 92 percent of the government’s $1.08 trillion in credits and deductions. These tax breaks include benefits for children, college tuition, retirement savings and investment, the deduction for mortgage interest, and the tax-free treatment of health insurance premiums paid by employers. Yet a middle-income family of four paid just 4.7 percent of its income, on average, to the IRS last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In fact, half of all wage-earning households no longer pay any income tax at all.
These benefits are difficult to dismantle. The Book of Jonah tells us why. It’s not a story about stellar faith. It’s about human selfishness. It begins with God telling Jonah to go north to Nineveh and warn the wealthy city of approaching judgment. Jonah boards a ship and heads south. A storm overtakes the ship and the sailors struggle to stay alive while Jonah snores below deck. When the crew discovers Jonah’s disobedience, they throw him overboard and pray for mercy. A whale saves Jonah’s life, depositing him on dry land. Jonah turns around and goes to Nineveh, telling them to repent.
Remarkably, the Ninevites repent. God spares them but Jonah resents God’s kindness. The Lord asks Jonah if it is right for him to be angry. Jonah says nothing but it’s obvious that he doesn’t think this is “fair.” Jonah remains silent but seethes as the Ninevites receive what he believes are undeserved benefits.
Resentment is despising when those whom you feel don’t deserve it prosper. Because of his haughtiness, Jonah takes a perch high above Nineveh and waits for it to burn (even though God said he would spare the city). Jonah instead gets burned as the sun beats down on his head. God graciously arranges for a leafy plant to grow and shields Jonah. He enjoys it. The next day however a worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it died. A scorching desert wind then began to blow on Jonah. Jonah hated life. Once again, the Lord asked Jonah if it is right for him to be angry. This time Jonah had an answer. Taking away the benefits he felt entitled to wasn’t “fair.”
The Book of Jonah reminds us that “fair” is a fairly problematic word. “America is not so exceptional that its people are impervious to the sin of envy, or to commonsensical notions about what is fair,” writes the Economist. “A Gallup poll published on September 20th found that those who supported raising taxes on the rich outnumbered opponents by 66% to 32%.”3 President Obama’s proposal to raise America’s top federal income-tax rate from 35 to 39.6 percent has merit and is probably part of the solution to fix America’s debt problem. But middle class wage earners are where America has sufficient tax revenues to solve the debt problem. To be “fair,” they have to be part of the solution.
The challenge, as Book of Jonah reminds us, is that it’s easy to give benefits to those who feel entitled to them but it’s hard to take them back. In 2000, lawmakers had only begun to consider eliminating a 1925 law requiring the federal government to maintain a helium reserve so that a dirigible fleet could be launched to protect the nation under attack. The Book of Jonah also reminds us it’s easy to stir resentment toward the wealthy while reassuring lower classes that benefits such as Social Security—an unfunded liability that taxpayers feel entitled to—will not be reduced. Both political parties play this game, which is why Standard & Poor’s is losing faith that America has sufficient political will to solve its debt problem.
It’s instructive that the Book of Jonah closes with a question. It might be a cautionary tale for America. God asks Jonah whether he can see beyond the end of his nose. Readers never get an answer. For America to solve its debt problem, Washington policymakers as well as taxpayers will have to see beyond the end of their noses. At the present moment, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, we’re appealing to fallen human nature—to resentment and entitlement. That’s not the answer America needs.
1 Lori Montgomery, “Ever-increasing tax breaks for U.S. families eclipse benefits for special interests,” Washington Post, September 17, 2011
2 “Hunting the Rich,” the Economist, September 24, 2011, p. 13.
3 “Classlessness in America,” the Economist, September 24, 2011, p. 44.