Posts tagged with: A Call for Intergenerational Justice

Jordan Ballor has already done a fine job of commenting on A Call for Intergenerational Justice, and I’m sure that others will be chiming in on the PowerBlog as well. I’d like to focus on a couple of points that stand out to me from an initial reading of the document.

I suppose it says something about a document when you can’t finish reading the title without alarm bells going off. “Intergenerational Justice” is a fine sounding term, but what does it mean in the context of the statement? While it isn’t spelled out in any detail, my best guess based on the text and the known political positions of many of the signers is that “intergenerational justice” refers to a continuation of the various Federal entitlement programs that make up the lion’s share of the mandatory portion of the Federal budget. To wit:

“Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded.” 

The only program specifically mentioned in the document is Social Security. The authors of the statement believe that the program can be modestly changed, but no indication is given that any radical reform will be tolerated:

“We must make Social Security sustainable. We can slowly increase the retirement age, modestly reduce benefits for more wealthy seniors, and increase the amount of income taxed to pay for Social Security.” 

I think it’s fair to infer from the limited detail provided by the writers of this statement that there is little enthusiasm for major reform of the core Federal entitlement programs that ultimately lie at the root of our debt problem, and no consideration of the idea that these programs may have been ill-concieved, or that the Federal government might not be an appropriate vehicle for meeting such basic human needs. The programs are there, and for the demands of “intergenerational justice” to be satisfied, they must remain in place.

Absent from the discussion, however, is any mention of the intergenerational injustice that these social programs represent in the first place. For instance: I’m in my mid-thirties. I cannot remember any time since I became politically aware that I believed Social Security would be solvent and able to provide benefits to me when I reach old age. Politicians and commentators have been talking about the coming collapse of Social Security since I’ve been reading political commentary. Various temporary fixes to the program have been enacted, but none of them fix the structural problems that plague the program and lead to the ongoing crisis – they just shove the inevitable bankruptcy back by a decade or two (and the same is true of Medicare and other similar entitlements).

And this is nothing new. Today, I just happened to pick up John Samples’ The Struggle to Limit Government and read the following passage describing the arguments over Social Security in its early years:

The intergenerational character of Social Security attracted criticism from the start. M. Albert Linton, an insurance executive and advisor to the program, argued that Social Security would create a large and intolerable burden on future generations. He noted that Social Security’s experts planned eventually to devote as much as 20 percent of taxable payroll to benefits, a sum that the generation of 1939 had not devoted to the program. Why should the current generation be allowed to commit future generations to a burden it would not now impose on itself? Linton’s admonition had no effect on Social Security officials. During a presentation about the future of the program, the council’s chair, J. Douglas Brown, remarked, “Après moi le déluge.” Future generations could take care of themselves; the experts of 1939, not to mention the politicians running in 1940, had little interest in what happened to people who did not exist. 

So, Wallis et al., what say you? If the programs you so desire to save were designed in a way that took no account of their sustainability or of the wellbeing of future generations, and if those same problems persist today and even threaten to completely overwhelm the Federal fisc, why the insistence on saving them? Is there no other way to provide for human needs than through a bureaucracy? It strikes me as odd to demand the maintenance of fiscally crippling entitlements in the name of intergenerational justice when just treatment for future generations was of no concern to the designers of the entitlements in the first place.

One additional point from the “Call” jumped out at me from the “Core Proposals” section. Specifically:

“We must reform the tax code. We should remove many special exemptions, end many special subsidies, and keep the tax code progressive.” 

There is a lot to agree with in that statement – the Federal tax code is monstrous, and it is very likely that there is no one person with the capability to understand it in all of its intricacy. It is filled with all manner of loopholes, exemptions, and subsidies, and needs to be brought under control if we have any hope of understanding exactly how Washington obtains and distributes its revenue. But why the insistence that the tax code remain “progressive”? Why must that be part of any “Christian” proposal to address our nation’s debt crisis? Is progressive taxation truly just? When I read that statement, I recalled reading a contrary opinion from one of my favorite theologians and commentators, R.C. Sproul, on just this issue:

Alexis de Tocqueville, when he came and examined the great American experiment of democracy, said two things can destroy this experiment: One is when people learn that their vote is worth money, that you can bribe people to get their vote or that you can use the vote to somehow shelter yourself from financial or other obligations imposed upon others. Have we taken the blindfold away from lady justice? Are we not all equal under the law? 

On the contrary, we have an income tax structure today that is inherently unjust. We almost never hear anybody discuss this injustice. But when God set up a system of taxation, He did things differently. God said I’m going to impose a tax on my people and it’s going to be ten percent from everybody: The rich man and the poor man are not going to pay the same amount. The rich man’s going to pay much more than the poor man, but they’re both going to pay the same percentage. They’re both going to have the same responsibility. That way the rich man can’t use his power to exploit the poor man, saying, “I’m going to pay five percent, but you’re going to pay fifty percent.” The rich weren’t allowed to do that. Nor were the poor allowed to say, “We’re going to pay five percent and the rich are going to pay fifty percent because they can afford it.” What that is ladies and gentlemen is the politics of envy that legalizes theft. Anytime you vote a tax on somebody else that is not a tax on yourself, you’re stealing from your brother. And though the whole world does it and though it’s common practice in the United States of America, a Christian shouldn’t be caught dead voting to fill his own pocketbook at the expense of someone else. Isn’t that plain? Isn’t that clear? And until we get some kind of flat tax, we’re going to have a politicized economy, we’re going to have class warfare, and we’re going to have the whole nation’s rule being determined by the rush for economic advantage at the polls. Don’t do it. Even if that means sacrificing some benefit you might receive from the federal government. Don’t ask other people at the point of a gun to give you from their pockets what you don’t have. That’s sin.

I don’t write any of this to call into question the Christian commitment of any of the signers of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” In fact, I have little doubt that the signers of the document do indeed have a deep concern for the poorer members of society that they hope to defend in their actions. I’m more interested in pointing out that this document is exactly what its subtitle claims it to be: “A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis.” Emphasis on A. It is not the Christian proposal; it is simply one of many responses that well-intentioned Christians can have to our current crisis. And it is entirely possible that well-intentioned people can have blind spots or propose economically flawed solutions to pressing problems. That seems to be a big part of what’s going on here.

A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.