In a recent speech, President Obama invoked Scripture to justify his ambitious spending plans. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published May 25), Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg notes that the president said nothing about the role of private communities and associations in helping our brothers and sisters in need. What’s more, “our leader hasn’t noticed that even some European governments, many of whom have been handing out as much pork as possible to politically-connected, politically-correct crony-capitalists over the past 15 years, are concluding many of these projects aren’t likely to be economically-viable either now or in the distant future,” Gregg writes. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
The Obama administration has placed a high priority on making higher education affordable. In January, President Obama spoke to students at the University of Michigan about steering American colleges and universities towards more “responsible” tuition costs.
It’s an admirable goal. According to the College Board, from the 2001-2012 school years, college tuition and costs at public universities increased at 5.6 percent a year more than the cost of inflation. For the 15 percent of consumers responsible for it, college debt totaled $900 billion in the third quarter of 2011, according to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York report. Such staggering figures invite questions not only about debt, but ones of morality.
The Bible does not shy away from the issue of debt. Psalm 37:21 demands that debtors pay back what was borrowed. In both the Old and New Testaments, the system of debt is likened to slavery. The issue carries moral implications for both borrower and lender. With as many outstanding college debtors as there are graduates (also from the NY Fed study), the financing of American higher education is not sustainable on its current path.
But Obama’s proposed plan, which includes a $10 billion addition to three federal grant programs, complicates itself through size and scope. Obama’s plan is performance based. It will apply sweeping categorical evaluations to public colleges and universities in varying fiscal circumstances. Schools that constrain net tuition increases will be rewarded. Those that don’t risk losing federal assistance.
The proposal forces the White House into the contentious and ongoing debate about the funding of state universities. Many states, California, for instance, have already imposed massive tuition increases as a result of equally enormous cuts to state aid.
Instead, look to Texas, another state that has faced significant education-related budget struggles in recent years. At last month’s SXSWedu conference, Texas A&M-San Antonio introduced an affiliation with Alamo Colleges, a group of local community colleges, and local high schools to give a number of accepted high school juniors a college degree at the age of 20, all for under $10,000.
The partnership, which was detailed by Thomas K. Lindsay at National Review Online, offers a bachelor’s degree of applied arts and sciences in information technology. The A&M system of schools has also announced plans to offer two additional degrees under the same program. With continued success, the model could potentially be expanded to suit a range of degrees.
The Texas A&M model, unlike the Obama administration’s, is locally-based and promises an efficient, cost-driven approach to higher education. It presents a model of loaning and spending that may be closer to Scripture’s ethical call for fair and honest fiscal relationships.
If more public colleges and universities follow suit by establishing programs similar to A&M-San Antonio’s, the nation could take a large step towards a more educated population with a strong sense of fiscal and moral responsibility.
Sam Gregg’s response to President Obama’s latest invocation of the “my brother’s keeper” motif brings out one of the basic problems with applying this biblical question to public policy. As Gregg points out, the logic of the president’s usage points to the government as the institution of brotherly love:
But who is the “I” that President Obama has in mind? Looking carefully at his speech, it’s most certainly not the free associations and communities that Alexis de Tocqueville thought made 19th-century America so different and alive when compared to his own already state-centric native France. No: Our number-one “keeper,” in our president’s mind, is the federal government.
Or more to the point: Who keeps the keepers?
On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg discusses remarks made by President Barack Obama at a March 30 campaign stop at the University of Vermont. From the White House transcript of the speech, here is some of what the president said:
The American story is not just about what we do on our own. Yes, we’re rugged individualists and we expect personal responsibility, and everybody out there has got to work hard and carry their weight. But we also have always understood that we wouldn’t win the race for new jobs and businesses and middle-class security if we were just applying some you’re-on-your-own economics. It’s been tried in our history and it hasn’t worked. It didn’t work when we tried it in the decade before the Great Depression. It didn’t work when we tried it in the last decade. We just tried this. What they’re peddling has been tried. It did not work. (Applause.)
Gregg on NRO:
… it’s especially noticeable that when insisting we must take care of our neighbor the president said nothing about the role of volunteer associations — or any non-state formation whatsoever — in addressing social and economic challenges. Nor did he mention anything about the often-selfless work of loving our neighbor undertaken by the same religious organizations whose constitutionally guaranteed (and natural) liberty to live, act, and serve others according to their beliefs is being unreasonably constricted by the more ghoulish segments of his administration in the name of “choice.”
Like all good Rawlsians, President Obama finds it hard to conceptualize the possibility that private communities and associations might often be better at helping our neighbor in need than governments. Instead, his instinct is to search immediately for a political state-focused solution. If the president invested some time in exploring the concept of social justice, he would discover that its earliest articulators — mostly mid-19th-century Italian Catholic theologians – thought it should be primarily realized through associations and institutions of civil society with the government playing a supportive, but normally background role.
Read “So Who Is Our Keeper, Mr. President?” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.
Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office, was called upon this morning by America’s Morning News to weigh in with the view from Rome on the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate that most employers – including religious institutions – provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs as part of health care coverage. He did so, and you can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:
Previous Acton commentary on the mandate decision:
Audio: Dr. Donald Condit on the Trampling of Conscience Protections
Jayabalan: Obamacare vs. the Catholic Bishops
Dr. Samuel Gregg: Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism
Jordan Ballor has already ably commented on President Obama’s recent comments on taxation and Christian social responsibility. Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico now joins the fray, having been called upon by Fox News Channel to add his insight to the discussion. In case you missed yesterday’s appearance on “Your World with Neil Cavuto,” we’ve got it for you.
I just completed a very short interview on Vatican Radio to discuss the current battle between the Obama administration and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It didn’t permit me to say more than that the Obama administration is making a political mistake, so I’d like to say a bit more about the serious consequences that will likely result and how we ended up with this Church-State conundrum in the first place.
As Dr. Donald Condit has already explained, the Obama administration seems to be making a political calculation that this controversy will blow over before the November’s presidential election because the conscience exemption for providing and paying for abortion, sterilization and contraception will not take effect until later next year. But the miscalculation was predictable and is now evident, with not only Catholics, but Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish and other religious leaders taking a stand. Unless the administration relents or the Obamacare law is ruled unconstitutional, Catholic hospitals and other institutions will be faced with a choice between not providing insurance coverage to their employees and thereby be fined by the government, or pay for the provision of services that they believe are morally evil.
A journalist friend in Rome just raised an alternative reading of the story to me on the street. What if Obama is actually making a principled argument that abortion, sterilization and contraception services are a fundamental aspect of women’s health that cannot and should not be denied to anyone, regardless of their own religious or individual convictions? Perhaps the White House believes, as most progressives do, that these stodgy, uptight opponents will eventually, inevitably, be overcome and we will one day wonder what all the fuss about. If so, the administration is doing much more than thinking about the next election; it’s redefining what the word “health” means to include measures that violently take away life from the most innocent and vulnerable persons, regardless of who pays for the services. This makes it much more than a religious freedom or a conscience issue and a matter of simple justice.
More generally, the whole Obamacare mess is a result of employer-provided health insurance. We would all be better off if our health insurance was decoupled from our employment, and we were free to purchase our own insurance according to our needs and wants. It is a result of state intervention in the economy, namely wage-and-price controls, that led to employers offering health insurance as a non-wage benefit to entice desired employees to their companies. Now we have the government mandating that all employers must provide comprehensive coverage to all their employees. What was once a prudential individual decision has become a government-mandated “right” that trumps the employer-employee, the doctor-patient, and perhaps even the priest-penitent relationship. Some progress.
There is some tragic irony to all this. We should not forget that many religious leaders have long-supported increasing the role of the state in health care and the economy at-large, perhaps thinking that conscience clauses would protect their institutions against any undue interference. Well, they were wrong; what the state giveth, the state taketh away. If you invite the state to “assist” more and more of your activities, it will eventually start telling you how to do things. Encouraging the Democratic Party’s efforts from Harry Truman on to socialize the health care system of the United States is likely to have dire consequences for Catholic and other religious-based social service providers. Economic ignorance among religious leaders comes at a very high cost to their own good works.