Thursday, August 11, 2011

The deficit debates


As a Christian priest and ethicist, I found the recent U.S. Congressional debates over raising the debt ceiling deeply disturbing for two reasons. First, the deficit debates revealed the disturbingly rapid pace at which self-interest appears to be supplanting concern for the least among us in American churches.

The Christian path that I understand and try to travel encourages disciples to emulate Jesus’ example and teaching by putting others on a par with self, if not ahead of self. This especially connotes caring for the most vulnerable among us.

I’m thankful that I live in a secular, pluralistic nation. However, many of our elected politicians self identify as Christian and a growing number of them try to capitalize upon their personal faith declarations when campaigning for election. Voters reasonably expect these individuals, if elected, to express their Christian values in their speeches and votes – at least some of the time.

Collectively, these politicians failed to stand vocally and firmly against legislative actions that might endanger the well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable residents. Instead, some of them adhered to campaign rhetoric and promises that are contrary to my understanding of Christianity. Others, who had voiced more compatible campaign rhetoric and promises, were publicly silent or attracted little media attention to their defense of the most vulnerable.

A cynic might suggest that the gospel of self-help draws bigger crowds than does emphasizing Matthew 25 and costly love. This perversion of Jesus quite probably represents a greater threat to Christianity’s future than secularism does. The deficit debates are a telling milestone of how far religion in America has moved in that direction.

Second, the deficit debates exposed the fragile and perilous condition of community in America. The tone of public discourse frequently lacked civility. More importantly, during the debates, I heard much dishonesty about important issues at stake, widespread advocacy of fiscal policies that would have had the unintended (or so I want to hope) consequences of further fracturing the foundations of our communal life, and explicit attacks on the integrity and good faith efforts of the vast majority of government employees. Demagoguery commonly masqueraded as reason, evoking too few objections. Individualism was ascendant and community on the wane. Mutual respect and trust yielded to mutual suspicion and animosity. These fault lines, unless healed, bode ill for the communal mutual interdependence to which God calls us and that best enables human flourishing.

Balancing the federal budget without increased revenues would require eliminating 40 cents of every dollar the government now spends. Thankfully, the U.S. government is not corrupt or ineffectual on that scale, even according to its harshest critics. In other words, eliminating the federal deficit without any tax increases will require substantial cuts or wholesale elimination of multiple programs. The Defense Department, Social Security, and three health insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program) each account for approximately 20% of the federal budget. Social safety net programs (14%) and debt interest payments (6%) are another 20% of federal spending. The other 20% funds the remainder of government operations (transportation, education, government retiree benefits, foreign aid, etc.).

One oft-heard sound bite during the debates asked, “Can you or the government do a better job of spending your money?” The speaker left the question unanswered, presuming that everybody agrees she/he can spend her/his money better than the government. I vehemently disagree. The federal government spends my tax dollars much better than I could. With my taxes, I buy, in no particular order of priority:

·         One of the best, if not the best, highway systems in the world;

·         Most healthcare for everybody in this country over age 65 and much of the healthcare for the poorest Americans;

·         Pensions for the elderly;

·         The assurance of generally safe food, drugs, consumer goods, air transport, etc.;

·         The closest approximation to the rule of law, justice, and civil rights for all in the history of the world (not perfect by any means, but far better than in most countries);

·         About 10% of the cost of educating children in the U.S.;

·         More defense than I want or need.

You might list other goods and services the federal government provides that you especially value, no matter how imperfect they are. Whatever your list, if it’s honest, is well beyond what you could afford as an individual – unless perhaps you are a billionaire. Even then, I’m willing to bet that you get a decent bargain in return for the taxes you pay.

Can the United States federal government achieve a greater degree of fiscal responsibility? Absolutely. Is some government spending fraudulent, wasteful, or abusive? Without a doubt. Is every government program important for sustaining our communal life? No. We rightly debate those questions. Identifying optimal government policies, programs, and funding priorities – even if all citizens shared common values – is impossible because nobody has a crystal ball with which to predict future outcomes.

However, reductions in government spending will reduce employment when unemployment remains above 9.1% of the workforce and much, much higher for certain segments of the workforce (e.g., young black males). Underemployment remains a significant but unquantifiable problem. Indeed, a recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that voters disapprove of Congress’ job performance at an all-time high, rate job creation more important than deficit reduction, advocate raising taxes to balance the federal budget, and believe politicians must compromise to make government work.

As Christians, we bring to public discourse about public finances a concern for the well-being of the least among us and for the strength of our community. The Eucharistic readings for Laurence, Deacon and Martyr at Rome (August 10, 258), in Holy Women, Holy Men speak to the federal budget battles that will continue in upcoming months and years:

"He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." (II Corinthians 9:9)

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24-26a)

Before executing Laurence, the prefect demanded that the archdeacon Laurence, responsible for the Church’s welfare programs, reveal where to find the Church’s treasures. According to legend, Laurence responded by assembling the poor and the sick and then telling the prefect, “These are the treasures of the Church.” The prefect then supposedly ordered Laurence roasted alive. The Greek root of the English word “martyr” means witness. The deficit debates make me think that we need a new generation of witnesses, holy women and holy men who will witness to the way of Jesus regardless of the cost to their pocketbooks.

3 comments:

Wormwood's Doxy said...

The deficit debates make me think that we need a new generation of witnesses, holy women and holy men who will witness to the way of Jesus regardless of the cost to their pocketbooks.

Amen.

But how many clergy will be brave enough to preach this sermon?

I remember our former rector saying that she could preach on hot-button social issues all day long, and if people disagreed with her, they would just roll their eyes and say "There she goes again!"

But, she said, "When I talk about money? People get HOT!"

Thank you for speaking out--and for giving me a lot to think about in terms of my own "witness" on this issue.

Pax,
Doxy

Chuck Till said...

I don't disagree that the benefits and services provided by the federal gov't are important, although some (like defense) are overdone. Nor do I support a balanced-budget amendment.

However, the size of the deficit is unsustainable -- not just common sense, but also the opinion from those outside the USA who have been financing the gap but are no longer interested in doing so. The gap must be narrowed, and there are only three ways to do it: raise taxes, cut spending, or (worst of all) eliminate the accumulated debt by radically devaluing the currency -- even more than it already has been.

I believe it's responsible and not un-Christian to force this issue.

George Clifford said...

Doxy, I agree: too few clergy will address this issue.
Chuck, I agree that finding a solution is imperative. As a starting point, I would consider:
• Cutting defense 50%.
• Increasing Social Security eligibility by a few years, commensurate with the increase in expected life spans. I’d also remove the earnings cap on the payroll tax without increasing benefits.
• I’d shift Medicare approval of expensive treatments to an evidence based outcomes model in which the government would generally not pay for experimental treatments, treatments with a low probability of success (e.g., less than 5%), and treatments that produce little change at an exorbitant cost (e.g., adding two months to expected life span at a cost of $50,000).
• Eliminating all income tax deductions and loopholes.
• Establishing a means test for entitlements.
• Cutting waste and minimally beneficial services to net a 10% savings from everything else.