Acton Institute Powerblog

A Failure to Govern?

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It seems that the supercommittee (the US Congress Joint Select Committee on Defict Reduction) has failed to agree on $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade. In lieu of this “failure,” automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion will kick in. These cuts will be across the board, and will not result from the committee’s picking of winners and losers in the federal budget.

In the context about discussions of intergenerational justice earlier this year, Michael Gerson said that such across-the-board cuts are “really the lazy abdication of governing.” And with respect to the outcome of the supercommittee process, Gerson is laying the lion’s share of blame for this failure to govern with President Obama: “It is the executive, not the legislature, that gives the budget process energy and direction. The supercommittee failed primarily because President Obama gave a shrug.”

But I want to speak out in favor of across-the-board cuts, at least provisionally. I do not think they necessarily represent a failure to govern, or the “lazy abdication of governing.” It’s true as Gerson says that “To govern is to choose. And some choices are more justified than others.” In the case where there is no clear agreement about spending priorities, or even the basic views of the purpose of government, choosing to keep spending priorities as they currently exist might just be the most feasible political move. If everyone agrees that there needs to be cuts, but no one wants their pet programs cut, then it seems reasonable to, as Gerson puts it, “let everyone bear an equal burden.”

If we were to try to weigh the cuts and divide them proportionally between various areas of government spending, it seems to me that we’d need to come to grips with the various responsibilities of government: primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on. Things that are more central to the federal government’s purpose should be cut relatively less than those things that are more peripheral. That’s the view that appears in the Acton Institute’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” for instance.

But one thing that’s clear about today’s political climate is that there is very little consensus on what the central functions of government are. And in the absence of consensus, maintaining current spending priorities might be the best we can hope for.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • J.E. Rendini

    If the SuperCommittee decided nothing, our military budget would be cut by much more than the Democrats could ever have negotiated with the Republicans outside the context of the SuperCommittee. So what was the penalty the Democrats would suffer if the SuperCommittee failed? It could only have succeeded if the Democrats were to agree to deeper cuts in their redistributionist programs than sequestration provided. How was this ever going to happen?

    The Republicans lost this battle when the sequestration failsafe was negotiated. The Democrats don’t care if America’s military is gutted and her economy damaged. A less vibrant economy produces a less potent military. A less potent military makes the great American middle class less independent, less free, more subject to “world” opinion. A subservient class of clerks deaf to the clarions of God, country, family and freedom,  that’s the Democrats’ goal.

    • Roger McKinney

      We have to cut military spending with other spending. Read
      European history. Nothing bankrupts a nation like continual war. Republicans
      need to go to rehab to get over their addiction to war. Not a single war since
      WWII has been necessary, and I have my doubts about that one.

    • I wonder if you aren’t confusing a good economy and a potent military.  A potent military is the result of a good economy.  Cutting military spending doesn’t hurt the economy, it helps the economy. 

      • J.E. Rendini

        I don’t think I am, but that’s not my point here. My point is that the Republicans tend to assume that the Democrats’ ultimate aims are similar to their own. But what looks like national disaster to Republicans is Nirvana for the Democrats. Threatening the Democrats with the destruction of America’s military and the slowing of her economy is like threatening a child with lollipops and milkshakes.  

        As far as cutting military spending, in a dangerous world, the maintenance of an adequate military is a primary function of our national government. America’s military budget has already been cut. Let’s cut other things first. America’s military spending needs to return to its post-WWII average percentage of GDP.

        If we restore our military spending levels, something we can well afford if we get our spending priorities straight, our military buildup will discourage Russian, Iranian, Islamist and Chinese military expansion. Or it will bankrupt them, the same way the Reagan military expansion bankrupted the USSR. Then, we will not have to fight World War III, and that will preserve our economic infrastructure and save us a good deal of money in the long run.

        Not to mention making the world more free and a less dangerous place to live for everybody, American or not.

        • Roger McKinney

          I know you don’t intend it, but the unintended consequences
          of your philosophy will be thousands of dead American boys half way around the
          world to prop up corrupt dictators and accomplish nothing. What did we
          accomplish with WWII? We gave have of Europe to communists, propped up the USSR for another 50 years and gave China to
          Communists. Why didn’t our mighty military deter those events?

          What did we accomplish in Korea, other than getting 50,000 boys
          killed? What did we accomplish in Vietnam, other than another 50,000
          American youths destroyed? What have we accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan after 10 years and
          thousands of dead boys? Nothing at all. Iran
          has virtually taken over Iraq
          and when we leave Afghanistan
          the Taliban will take over.

          With this abysmal record, how can anyone want more of the

          “our military buildup will discourage Russian, Iranian,
          Islamist and Chinese military expansion.” 

          Our military has never in the history of the US deterred
          anyone from anything. Did it deter the USSR
          and China from supporting N. Korea? Did it prevent the Chinese from invading Korea? Did it
          prevent USSR support of N. Vietnam? How can you look at these massive failures
          and claim victory?

          “Or it will bankrupt them, the same way the Reagan military
          expansion bankrupted the USSR.” 

          That is a Republican myth. Communism bankrupted the USSR, not
          Reagan’s military buildup. Check out Yegor Gaidar’s history of the collapse of
          the USSR,
          “Collapse of an Empire” for the truth at

          The USSR would have
          collapsed in WWII had the US
          not rescued it. We rescued it again in the 1970’s and 80’s with massive grain
          shipments and then with loan guarantees. Socialism impoverishes people and
          collapses from within if capitalist nations will allow it. Fear of the Soviet Union came from really bad economics and was
          overblown. Fear of Islam is overblown as well.

        • I saw a WSJ editorial recently that pointed out that the US spends more on its military than the next 14 nations COMBINED.  Looks like to me we could easily cut military spending, which would grow our economy (already 4x bigger than the next biggest competitor, China), enabling more military spending in the future if necessary.

          I’m not sure Pakistan would agree that our military makes the world a less dangerous place.

          • I don’t think it’s simply adequate to look at military spending as such. It might be more helpful to think of military spending as a function of GDP, in which case American expenditures don’t seem quite so exceptional.

          • But again, in total dollars our military is bigger than the next 14 nations combined.  That’s ginormous.  And of those 14 nations, most of them are probably our allies.  So the nations that JE Rendini mentions above as potential threats – well, their military spending is a fraction of ours.  In military terms, they aren’t threats.  But they are pumped up to be threats to justify taking my money by force to fund the military-industrial complex.

  • Joel Crevier

    While across the board cuts are certainly to be preferred to political stalemate and total inaction (no cuts at all), I am not sure that just because such cuts are better than nothing means that the government is above some harsh criticism for the way that things have played out. Unfortunately, maintaining the current spending priorities just isn’t an option; it seems the whole fiscal underpinnings of the state will eventually unravel (with social security and other programs becoming enormously unsustainable in the near future) as we are currently witnessing in Europe. The American people deserve action, regardless of whether or not a consensus can be reached regarding government’s various responsibilities. Most likely, no consensus, can or ever will be reached. In such an environment, principled compromise is in order. Compromise should also be a “feasible political move.” Needless to say, current politics is not characterized by this. If we value the future well-being of our nation, it should be. 

    • Let’s not forget that the formation of the supercommittee itself, along with the framework for what happens in the absence of an agreement, was achieved as a kind of “compromise.” The compromise apparently was the $1.2 trillion across the board cut all along.

  • Roger McKinney

    It doesn’t matter! $1.5 trillion over 10 years is $150 B per
    year, or about 10% of the deficit. That’s not enough to care about. And the
    cuts aren’t cuts in spending; they’re cuts in the rate of growth. It’s all an
    exercise in fooling the gullible press.

    Personally, I like a grid locked Congress. No new bad
    legislation is the best we can hope for from Congress. Congress may not cut
    spending, but the bond market will force cuts when the debt gets too high, so
    spending will be cut one way or the other. And the spending cuts enforced by
    the bond market will be real cuts, not the lie that Congress has perpetrated
    for decades.

  • Roger McKinney

    Here is an excellent graphic that demonstrates the deceit behind the debate: