In early February President Bush signed into law a $150 billion dollar package of tax rebates touted as a "stimulus" for the flagging national economy. The purpose of the plan, which President Bush has called "a booster shot for our economy," is to quickly inject some money into the economy and spur consumer spending.
The eighteenth-century theologian and pastor John Wesley once preached that we should "earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can." Productivity, frugality, and generosity are the core moral virtues that have animated prosperous and free economies in the West for centuries. But now the federal government seemingly wants to add a fourth and conflicting principle to these traditional values: "Spend all you can."
With the first checks going out in May, the speed of the federal action is a relative thing; the nation's capital must be one of the few places where "immediate" action means something happening three or four months later. Individual taxpayers stand to receive about $600 each, with parents and guardians of dependent minors slated to receive another $300 per child.
Even so, it's unclear what effect the stimulus package will have on the economy in the short term. The $150 billion level is the minimum that many economists thought would be necessary for a rebate action to have any discernible effect on an economy as huge as America's $13 trillion annual GDP.
Other experts question whether such a move will be too little or too late to have the desired economic effect. We might also question the wisdom of such a package in the face of record budgetary deficits in federal spending, and indeed whether the average taxpayer should be taking economic advice from a government that has a debt level quickly approaching $10 trillion.
But any national or global economic perspective must be appropriately linked to the behavior of individual consumers, families, and mediating institutions, whose activity forms the aggregate for higher-level abstraction. So it bears asking what sort of effect the stimulus package will have on the average American taxpaying household.
For some, no doubt, a rebate at the levels outlined above will amount to some financial "gravy." The funds will be nice to have but not indispensable for a healthy and prosperous life. These are the folks that are most likely to spend the money in accord with the government's intentions: on consumer retail items like electronics, travel, and tourism.
For other taxpayers, the dilemma posed by the tax rebate will not be which luxury to buy, but rather which bill to pay first. For a family who has significant medical bills or credit card debt, it does not make much sense to spend the money on superfluous retail goods.
The important thing for taxpayers and families to consider in their decisions about spending this money is not what the government tells us to do with it. Instead, we should think about what makes the best sense for our particular situation.
This money is, after all, the taxpayers' own in the first place. In sending back tax "rebates," the government is not giving cash away but simply returning to taxpaying citizens what is and should be our own money. When the rebate checks hit your bank account, the government ceases to have any claim as to how to spend those funds.
And rightly so. Taxpayers should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing. And if it makes sense for you and your situation, you should feel free to buy that hi-def TV if you so desire.
But you certainly should not feel obligated to do so as if mere consumption is a civic responsibility.
As a free and responsible people, Americans should be taking our cues about financial stewardship not from Congressional fiat or presidential directive, but from our own sovereignty as creative, thrifty, and charitable citizens.
Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty (www.acton.org) in Grand Rapids, Mich.