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.”
Luke 10:33-35

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.


  1. This is amazing, lots of people wondering what going on. But the guy from FFT or was talking about this amazingly many moons ago.
    he called the stockmarket crash back in 2008 and the economic collapse many years ago. It is intrseting to see what he is saying now. Go check him out.

  2. Your often posted CBPP chart is quite misleading. For some strange reason americans keeping getting richer. Because fo the structure of our tax code, a phenomenon called tax creep occurs (i.e. if we all used the tax brackets from the 1960's even the poorest americans would be in the top brackets. The bush/obama tax cuts keep taxes as a percent of GDP close to historical level, so it is seems unfair to argue that because these tax cuts keep taxes from rising beyond historical levels that they are driving our deficit. Obviously, people will differ over what they think the appropriate level of taxes should be, but let's not pretend that our deficit is driven by a revenue problem. Revenues are relatively stable

  3. Hey Tom,

    One thing...

    "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."

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't legislating compassion (read: forcing) for the poor miss the point that was being made in Scripture when we are told that true religion is to care for the orphans and widows?

    It's a heart thing. Forcing people to pay more money doesn't change the heart - and therefore makes no change in God's eyes.

    Shouldn't your focus be on making the argument that people OUGHT to WANT to give more money to the poor, not that the government should FORCE people to give?

    Maybe I'm missing something...

  4. Taylor, I see it as an ethical debate about where we draw the line on tax policy. Using language like "forcing people to give" and "legislating compassion" in regards to taxes is a helpful way forward for dialogue because you and I would both agree that governments need to tax their citizens. Would you argue against ANY and EVERY form of social safety net from the government? And if not, then how do you argue for that theologically? My grandmother is a widow and her life is greatly benefited by her monthly social security checks. Doesn't this indicate a more humane and compassionate society?

  5. Correction: I meant to say "Using language like "forcing people to give" and "legislating compassion" in regards to taxes is NOT a helpful way forward for dialogue..."

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  7. No, I wouldn't argue against any and every form.
    My argument is that mandating care for the widows and orphans doesn't fix the root of the problem.
    Jesus didn't come to earth so that people wouldn't suffer. In no place in Scripture are we told that we ought to seek equality of circumstances. In fact, Christ’s parable of the talents suggests that some are given more than others (5, 2, 1).
    Jesus didn't come so that orphans and widows would be cared for by the rich.
    His grace and forgiveness, though, should (I prefer "Ought") move people to care for those people (and all people).
    Mandating that care doesn't change anything except the worldly conditions of those people.
    I can't imagine a scenario in which someone who receives a bigger check because of new legislation says, "Oh wow, I got $500 more this month. Those Christians really are demonstrating Christ's love."
    So what is really at stake?
    From my perspective, it's clear you have a sincere heart for the poor and 'less fortunate' (a catch-all phrase). You want everyone to share that heart. That is not only commendable, but that is the heart of ministry as a believer. Edifying the body...
    That being said, you should know - from your many years dealing with high schoolers (myself included) - that telling someone to do something or forcing them to do something, is in no way effective at changing someone's heart/mind/emotions. In fact, it often has the opposite effect intended. When James wrote that true religion was caring for the orphans and widows, his intention wasn't about the earthly condition of the orphans and widows (though that is clearly a good consequence) but rather the heart condition that is in line with Christ's own care and compassion for those individuals.
    I understand the desire to “fix” the system to line up with your convictions, but I think it misses the point.
    The conditions aren’t the point. The heart behind the conditions is what’s important.
    Put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig.
    Force people to give and they’re still the same people they were before the mandate, just with less money.

  8. Taylor, you and I are operating from quite different biblical narratives. We each construe a different story about who God is and what it means to be God's followers and the significance of Jesus in history (and our lives today). This, of course, is a 2000 year intramural Christian dialogue. Our political/economic outcomes are, therefore, quite different. For more, check out Brian McLaren's New Kind of Christianity (2010).

  9. I did read the meat of it and couldn't disagree more. Not only is it poor philosophy - weak, straw men arguments, and poorly constructed logic - but, as you say, is a completely different story about who God is.

    The easiest critique I have of his contention, is that the origin and history of a person's view has no merit whatsoever on the truth value of the view itself.

    That McLaren suggests that I don't worship the Elohim of the OT, but rather "Theos" because of some notion of progressivism and post-modernism that I don't share with him is not only insulting, but it's absurd.

    Critiquing 2000+ years of believers in Christ and coming to the conclusion that they have been worshiping the wrong idea of God is so unbelievable to me that I can hardly imagine the ego it requires.

    To put it simply, I find no points in common with the work being done in Christian thought by McLaren (and his post-modern ilk) and the work done by Bonhoeffer and Willard, to name two.

    But back on point. My 'story' about who God is and what it means to be a follower is very simple.

    I am a sinner and deserve death in the face of God's Holiness.
    Christ died and rose again to pay the price for my sin.
    I accept his atoning sacrifice and stand justified, by grace, through faith - and that's not of my own, but it's a gift.
    My goal everyday is to be less of 'Taylor' and more of 'Christ'.

    The barometer of this is quite simple. Fruit. He who abides in Christ bears fruit.
    Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.

    When I exhibit those things, I am exhibiting Christ, because He IS those things.

    So the questions really become, is it possible to exhibit Christ's Love by denying homosexual marriage? Is it possible to exhibit Christ's Kindness without giving 70% of my earnings to the government? Is it possible to exhibit Christ's Peace while fighting wars?

    It seems your answer would be no.

    That's fine.

    But God is the Gardener. He alone judges Fruit.

    I think it behooves us all to strive to bear Fruit rather than call out the shortcomings and misconceptions of other vines...

    And at the end of the day, we can still both be thankful that God's grace is sufficient for us all.

  10. Taylor, I truly appreciate your passion for truth and faithfulness (it beats apathy and cynicism any day). We are compelled (and therefore framed) by different versions of Christian faith. I read McLaren and am greatly inspired by his vision of a "minority report" of the 2000 year tradition of following Jesus. You read him and are greatly disturbed. This is always how it has been since Day One: the resurrection. Even the authors of what became New Testament documents had different visions of what it means to be "Christian." The fact that Christian leaders 1850 years selected 4 different versions of the Jesus story says a lot. True, the Christian story that you subscribe to has been the more popular and louder version since Constantine. However, scholars like NT Wright are taking seriously the notion that we've learned more about 1st century Palestinian Judaism (the context of the NT documents) in the past 50 years than we knew in the 1950 years combined (Dead Sea Scrolls and other findings/scholarship). This has huge ramifications. Christianity should change as a result of this scholarship/prayer/dialogue/etc. EY is just one sample of contemporary prophetic Christianity. Like you, we yearn to bear fruit for God's Reign, but we also see the need to pick up the cross and follow Jesus into loving, firm, nonviolent confrontation with Powers (Christian and otherwise) that lead to counterfeit ways of living (this is what he meant by bearing the cross). Energizing and criticizing are both important aspects of Christian living. I'm assuming you actually agree with us on these points. Indeed, you disagree with us on the theological-political issues of marriage equality, progressive taxation for the common good and pacifism/just-war and you consistenly respond in the comment section of EY (isn't this contrary to what you commented on in your last post: "I think it behooves us all to strive to bear Fruit rather than call out the shortcomings and misconceptions of other vines..."). You are simply calling EY out on what you perceive to be our shortcomings and well you should. Truly, the Gardener is participating with us and, I believe, is presently judging us (quite mysteriously) through the fruit we bear (positive and negative). May we continue to present compelling cases, through word and deed, for our competing visions of Christian faithfulness.