Monday, February 21, 2011
Deficit Fever: Don't Catch It!
The Republican strategy is to split the vast middle and working class - pitting unionized workers against non-unionized, public-sector workers against non-public, older workers within sight of Medicare and Social Security against younger workers who don't believe these programs will be there for them, and the poor against the working middle class.
Economist Robert Reich
Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don't think government should help its citizens. That is, they don't think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.
Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was burning with compassion (splochna). He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Christians are those peculiar folks who make a commitment to stop thinking only about themselves and set about trekking a rigorous path marked by love and compassion for all. The Greek word that is used by a variety of New Testament writers to designate this is splochna, a deep burning of solidarity with those in pain and suffering (we Americans would say "my heart hurts for you" while 1st century Jews would say "my bowels burn for you"...same reaction, different body parts). Christians are those who, despite common sense or family patterns, take on the way of the Running Father (Luke 15) who had splochna for his youngest son who wasted it all away on wild living (check out this great sermon on Luke 15 from prophetic Christian pastor Dale Fredrickson). We follow the path of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) who had splochna for the beaten and bruised stranger on the road to Jericho. As we noted in our last post, we agree with our Christian President that all our decisions (personally and publicly) should be saturated with love of neighbor and an advocacy for the least of these.
All Christians inhabit a particular context and contemporary followers of Jesus in North America should be those characterized as living with burning bowels in a world scripted, not by compassion, but primarily by corporate and captialist assumptions. It is a society marked by a widening and deepening gulf between rich and poor which is largely invisible to most of us.
This invisible ignorance over income inequality has contributed greatly to our recent economic collapse, but also to the success of GOP political leaders and their media in shifting the national dialogue to fearful talk of a deficit epidemic. This is all part of a clear-cut Republican strategy which has been masterful at cutting off any sort of dialogue that could lead to saner and more sustainable solutions. State and federal governments, as well as numerous media outlets, have become obsessed with cutting spending because as the myth goes "government has grown out of control." Government, according to this well worn narrative, has always been consumed with "waste and fraud." At the very same time, the macroeconomy is still experiencing a major recession hangover, with stagnant job growth, reduced home equity and increase foreclosures and bulging health care, energy, food and higher education costs. This is bad news for the middle and under classes of Americans who are having a harder time than ever affording these necessities of life. And let's be reminded of the real reasons for our increased national deficits since Obama became the President:
That's right: the War on Terror, Bush (and now Obama) Tax Cuts and the Economic Downturn (deeply reduced revenues) have produced the bulk of the red ink, along with
TARP and the Obama stimulus.
Budgets are moral documents and we can only make wise decisions that will actually love our neighbors and improve the lives of the least of these if we step back and think about how exactly we can reduce the bleeding of jobs, health, education and housing. A choice today to deal with deficits by cutting spending will have disastrous effects on jobs-health-education-housing for the rest of us. Here's how economist Dean Baker addressed the current national dialogue on the deficit epidemic yesterday:
There was no one pointing out the obvious truths that all budget experts acknowledge:
1) The explosion of the deficit in the last last few years was the result of the downtown caused by the collapse of the housing bubble.
2) If the government reduced its deficit any time soon the main result would slower growth and higher unemployment.
3) The main factor driving the horror stories of an exploding deficit in the long-run is the growth of private sector health care costs. If we paid the same amount per person for health care as people in other wealthy countries we would be looking at huge budget surpluses, not deficits.
Baker is a key prophetic economic voice in the wilderness. The rest of the nation is tangled up in powerful, yet simple, propaganda. Cutting-spending-while-scapegoating immigrants, public servants (unions that support and protect teachers-police-firemen-government workers) and an overgeneralized "government spending" may make a lot of people feel good about themselves, but it will simply not improve the lives of millions of Americans (and global citizens). However, if we took seriously a paradigmatic shift in how we increase public revenue and then invest it, we could take steps towards making our country better. We are not talking about allowing American citizens to "live off the government," but placing them in a situation where they have the opportunity to prove their own personal responsibilty with an authentically compassionate public policy that works for everyone. A more humane and empathetic leadership (family, faith communities and governments) will do what it takes to cultivate opportunity for all and compassion for all.
Unfortunately, too many leaders (including our Christian President) have been squeezed into taking a trendy position on the debt situation, lamenting how much we need to cut away from policies that care for the health and education of our lower-income neighbors, while the military spending and the bank accounts of millionaires and billionaires get bloated. The message to financial and corporate elites is that they will be taken care of, no strings attached, and that they are the most important entities in our nation. Their profits are exploding as they cut jobs, outsource and get more tax breaks.
The government exists to protect her people from the Powers (from AIG to BP to bin Laden to Walmart) who abuse and falsely accuse. As Matt Taibbi has so aptly investigated in recent weeks, Wall Street's greedy and insanely illegal practices led to an economic collapse, but no one's going to jail. Just fines paid by stockholders to get wealthy execs off the hook. The problem is that the government agents whose paychecks tax payers fund are in bed with those whom they are supposed to be regulating. The solution cannot possibly be deregulation. The opposite of counterfeit regulation is not deregulation. It's real regulation. As LA Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik explained two weeks ago that you always "want your regulators to be prim, pinched souls with grim eyes and a constitutional aversion to fun." In other words, we need more government in the right places.
In addition, if Christian political faithfulness was judged by how we love our neighbors and care for the least of these through public policy, then we would seriously consider the dynamic effects of raising taxes on our wealthiest citizens. No doubt, this is redistribution, a reverse effect of Reaganomics which has shifted a massive redistribution towards the wealthiest Americans over the past 30 years. This isn't "European-style socialism." This is pre-Reagan American-style progressive tax policy which placed at least a 70% marginalized tax rate on our wealthiest neighbors (it was 90% in the 50s) in order to fund the types of projects that sustain all of us: defense, roads, alternative energy, education and health.
This is not a time to talk to get sucked into narratives that advocate for cutting vital services for the poorest Americans. It's about time in the US that we ponder an economic paradigm shift that will increase and invest. Increase revenue by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and closing loopholes on corporations and financial institutions. Invest this revenue by paying down the debt and paying forward better education, energy, health and job prospects. Good economics, based on post-WWII American policies (we had a much higher debt to GDP ratio after WWII than we do now--see below), is both wise and compassionate. This kind of economics unveils a love of neighbor and a prioritization of the least of these. During this media-intoxicated deficit frenzy, let's take a step away from the noise and imagine policy that will make our world a more humane and empathic place to live.