Posts tagged with: debt

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Thursday, March 10, 2011

Just a reminder that tonight, March 10, the Acton Institute is hosting an Open Mic Night where a discussion of opposing views on America’s Debt Crisis and A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis will occur. Acton Institute research fellow Jordan Ballor will be joined by Dr. Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice which helped issue “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis.” Please join us tonight for a vigorous discussion. As always questions from those in attendance is welcomed and encouraged. The event will be taking place at the Derby Station (2237 Wealth St SE, East Grand Rapids 49506). Seating begins at 6:00 pm and the discussion starts at 6:30 pm.

More details on tonight’s Open Mic Night can be found here.

A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis can be found here.

Ballor’s criticism of the Call can be found here.

One of the main points of the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is the pitting of defense spending against charitable social programs. The assumption is that Jesus would obviously endorse and campaign for the welfare state over the military. A common perception of the U.S. armed forces by many of the religious left is that they are the perfect embodiment of America as “corrupt empire.”

At Acton, all of our commentators on the budget have consistently said all spending measures must be on the table for addressing the federal deficit and debt, including defense. But entitlement promises and their mismanagement is by far the biggest obstacle towards a plan for fiscal responsibility.

Previously, in “Shane Claiborne’s Budget Babbling,” I pointed out the absurdity of Claiborne quoting Martin Luther King’s maxim: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Does Claiborne not see entitlements as social spending, which is by far the largest expenditure?

In his column, I think Claiborne is frankly disrespectful to our military, viewing them solely as bomb hurlers and keepers of arsenals of death. He says, “cutting $3 mosquito nets that can save lives while continuing to spend $200,000 a minute on the military should raise some flags of a different sort.”

In his disrespect for the military, Claiborne makes no mention of all the humanitarian aid and assistance provided by the U.S. armed forces. One could make an argument that the military does not need to be involved in humanitarian aid, but weighed against the things Claiborne says should not be cut, the military towers over those efforts when it comes to humanitarian assistance and aid. Often, the military is vital for not just logistically delivering all the aid but helping to secure a troubled nation so aid is delivered efficiently, humanely, and in a fair manner.

The United States military has recently led humanitarian missions in Haiti after the earthquake, the Republic of Georgia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and no doubt stand ready to deliver food and medical assistance to Libya. Those nations are only a few examples of some of the humanitarian benefits of our military might. The Navy has ships that serve as floating hospitals for people in need of evacuation for medical care. In fact, their secondary mission is supporting humanitarian relief, one such example is the USNS Comfort. The Comfort deployed to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.

My point here is I think the religious left has for too long stereotyped our armed forces and its mission. While they should be applauded at times for raising awareness of issues of peace and justice, it needs to be done responsibly and with greater respect to those who serve.

The military, after all, is under the authority of the civilian government. Shane Claiborne’s bumper sticker theology where he toasts “all who would rather see ice cream dropped from planes rather than bombs,” and proposes that the military hold bake sales so the men and women will be able to wear the uniform of our armed forces is demeaning. It cheapens the men and women who have not only shown courage in defense of our nation but compassion.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Shane Claiborne is also asking “What Would Jesus Cut?” I’m still opposed to the whole notion of reducing Christ to budget director, as my earlier post points out. But Jesus as Secretary of Defense of the United States or rather, Jesus as secretary of peace as proposed by Congressman Dennis Kucinich is equally unhelpful. Mark Tooley, president of IRD, has already weighed in on Shane Claiborne’s not so brilliant drafting of Jesus for president.

As a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” one should assume Claiborne is serious about deficit reduction. We should take him at his word, but what about defense spending for deficit reduction and the proper role of government? And as John has already pointed out in his post, and what everybody should know, is that defense cuts alone will not balance the budget.

There are responsible conservative lawmakers, like U.S. Congressman Justin Amash from right here in West Michigan, that have rightfully said defense cuts should be on the table as part of plan for fiscal responsibility. In terms of the proper role of government, defense spending is a clear federal mandate for taxing and spending (Article 1, Section 8). The constitution should still be relevant, and one could assume we may not be in the same spending mess we are in right now if it was taken more seriously.

Claiborne says, “Even though the 533 billion dollar military budget is the elephant in the room and the gushing, bleeding wound of America’s deficit … it has been the sacred cow.”

This is what is unhelpful, and Mark Tooley has already pointed this out in his own response to “What Would Jesus Cut?”, that “probably Claiborne doesn’t know that ‘programs of social uplift’ have out expensed defense for 40 years, starting with the Nixon Administration.” Defense spending is 20 percent of the annual budget, while Medicare and Medicaid takes up 23 percent of the budget and social security is 20 percent as well, but tack on another 12 billion in annual dollars. Claiborne says “As Dr. [Martin L.] King said, ‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But this is clearly not the case as Clairborne just pulled out a pithy maxim without ever looking at any real numbers.

Tooley also makes a good point about Claiborne’s Anabaptist tradition as well:

Claiborne, an Anabaptist, is author of Jesus for President, a 2008 book describing government as the biblical Whore of Babylon. Oddly, many neo-Anabaptists ferociously denounce government as demonic, almost sounding Libertarian, while still demanding more and more government for politically correct social programs.

Claiborne believes America is the evil imperialist par excellence. But why is it then okay for God to ordain that same ‘evil’ state to fill the bellies of the masses and provide for their every social need through government fiat?

This brings up a good point about rhetoric versus reality. The nuclear freeze crowd of the 1980s hyperventilated across the United States and Western Europe with help from Moscow because Ronald Reagan was strengthening the NATO alliance by sending nuclear Pershing II missiles into Europe. Reagan’s efforts were disastrous for the Soviet Union, and the peace he achieved dwarfed the objectives of the same old arms agreements advocated by the nuclear freeze movement.

Perhaps, “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” would have been better served without the inclusion of such names as Jim Wallis and Claiborne. Serious matters call for a more serious discussion. I reviewed The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald Sider, who is also a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Still left of center, Sider praised market forces, saying, “On balance, a market economy respects human freedom better, creates wealth more efficiently, and tends to be better at reducing poverty.”

Claiborne can make no such statement. He seems to view the free-market as a construct of an evil imperialistic American empire. Markets seem only useful to him in the context of underpaid enlisted military men and women selling cookies to buy their uniforms. Claiborne may have something worthwhile to say every once in a while, his bio is interesting to say the least, but on budget matters and defense spending he’s clearly babbling.

Last week’s issuance of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis” has occasioned a good bit of discussion on the topic, both here at the PowerBlog and around various other blogs and social media sites.

It has been interesting to see the reaction that my comments about the Call have generated. Many have said that I simply misunderstood or misread the document. I have taken the time to reread the document and do some reassessment of the entire debate. Unfortunately this has raised more questions than answers for me thus far.

Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, has kindly offered to help us sort out some of these concerns. He’s in Grand Rapids later this week and has generously agreed to a public discussion in an open mic, informal setting we’re calling, “Opposing Views: America’s Debt Crisis and ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice.’”

Details are below and at the Facebook event page. We plan to record the event and make it available for those who aren’t able to join us. But if you are, come along and bring your questions.
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Budget battles have heated up recently throughout the United States, and President Obama’s budget proposal has not been exempted from the intense discussion.

The current proposal by the President pushes our national debt to $15.476 trillion or 102.6 percent of our GDP.  Furthermore, there are no cuts to entitlement spending which consist of 57 percent of the spending in the budget, or approximately $2.14 trillion.

While it is imperative to our economic recovery to have a budget that is fiscally sound, it is also crucial to have a budget that is morally sound.  There are critics to cutting entitlement programs, however, a fiscally sound budget which may require a look at entitlement cuts and reforms, will help the poor and vulnerable.  If we continue the spending trend the United States has been fostering under previous budgets than economic recovery will be hampered which means less job opportunities.  The poor and vulnerable will be dependent on entitlement programs, violating the principle of subsidarity.

A fiscally responsible budget also abides by stewardship principles.  To be good stewards we must look long term and create a strong and stable prospering economy not just now, but for our children and grandchildren.  Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro-Carámbula addresses this issue in his blog post:

…we are leaving our debts to future generations. We are asking them to pay the principal and the interest on our debt with their labors. This is akin to forcing them into a form of indentured servitude to us, and it will last long after we have gone to meet our Maker. By law, one can reject an inheritance if has more liabilities than assets, but a citizen cannot reject public debt if he wants to remain a citizen…

Rev. Sirico also articulates the necessity of morality in the Federal Budget during his recent interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s World Over.

I introduced this week’s Acton Commentary yesterday with some thoughts about “The Audacity of Austerity.” In today’s “‘A’ for Austerity: The New Scarlet Letter,” I take to task the attitude embodied by Paul Krugman’s vilification of proponents of austerity measures.

Most recently Krugman called such advocates “debt moralizers,” implicitly drawing the connection between austerity measures and “puritanical” virtues like thrift. In this Krugman follows in the spirit of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed has much to answer for in forming the popular, and mistaken, understanding of the Puritans and joyless, dour, and rigid.

But the joke is, of course, that in denouncing the “debt moralizers” Krugman is himself “moralizing.” It just so happens that instead of moralizing against wanton debt and deficit spending, he is moralizing against commonsense “puritanical” wisdom. He is moralizing against those who dare to think that government bureaucrats and the public intelligentsia aren’t fit to rule the political economy by virtue of their “expertise.”

Krugman’s message amounts to the view that the hoi polloi don’t really know what’s best for them, and it is up to the few enlightened planners of civilization to run things properly.

If I might be allowed to make another literary comparison, in this Krugman is a bit like Shift, the Ape from The Last Battle, the concluding book of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. The book beings by describing the relationship between Shift the Ape and Puzzle the Donkey (or Ass), and although both would say they are friends, the nature of the friendship is rather suspect, for “from the way things went on you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend.”

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Shift uses his superior way with words and quick wit to manipulate Puzzle into doing what he wants. All the while Shift reiterates the same message to Puzzle.

Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all. And if ever Puzzle did try to argue about anything, Shift would always say, “Now Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.” And Puzzle always said, “No, Shift. It’s quite true. I’m not clever.” Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said.

This all too often is the message from K Street (and Wall Street) to Main Street: We understand what needs to be done better than you. On the heels of yesterday’s election, it is up to the new legislators not to simply sigh on behalf of their constituents and go along with the way things always go inside the Beltway.

As I argue in today’s commentary, contrary to Krugman, we ought to think of the ‘A’ for austerity not as a scarlet letter but rather as a red badge of political courage.

Until recently, many thought that Europe had escaped the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Some even argued that the crisis has demonstrated the European social model’s superiority over “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. In 2010, however, we have seen an entire country bailed out, riots in Athens, governments slashing budgets, and several European nations staring sovereign debt default in the face. Some are even claiming that the euro is finished. So what went wrong for Europe? How adequate have been the responses of European governments? And what are the consequences for America? The video is from the Aug. 2 Acton Lecture Series in Grand Rapids, Mich.

From Marketwatch today, “Morgan Stanley warns on sovereign defaults”:

“Outright sovereign default in large advanced economies remains an extremely unlikely outcome,” they said. But bondholders could suffer losses from forms of “financial oppression,” such as repaying debt with devalued currency, the analysts warned.

From last week’s Acton Commentary by Sam Gregg, “Deficits, Debt, and Self-Deception”:

Then there is the increased possibility that governments will resort to other, less-conventional means of deficit-reduction. As Adam Smith observed long ago in The Wealth of Nations, “when national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.” Smith went on to explain that “the liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.”

By “pretended payment,” Smith meant governments would seek to escape their debts by inflating the currency. In this way, governments could legally deny creditors what they are due in real terms, while simultaneously avoiding formal bankruptcy.

Of course, whenever a government resorts to inflation to diminish its debts, it has, for all intents and purposes, effectively acknowledged its insolvency. But such actions, as Smith noted, also constitute gross injustices against numerous innocents. Those who have been frugal and industrious suddenly find the value of their savings and capital arbitrarily reduced because of others’ financial irresponsibility. This also reduces the incentives for people to save and invest. For why should anyone bother to do so if they cannot be reasonably sure that the worth of their savings will not be suddenly diluted by government fiat?

Simon Johnson and Peter Boone wrote an interesting article the UK Telegraph Saturday called “The New Feudal Overlords of Europe will be the bankers of the ECB.”
Johnson is also the co-author along with James Kwak of a thoughtful and provocative book 13 Bankers as well as a blog on economics. Also on the ECB see my colleague Sam Gregg’s Piece at Public Discourse

Using Hayek’s famous phrase “The Road to Serfdom” Johnson and Boone argue the demise of Europe will not be the welfare state and the growth of government as Hayek predicted, but rather a “financial elite gone awry” They write:

Hayek had the sign and the destination right, but was wrong about the mechanism. Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests are what ended up undermining democracy both in North America and in Europe. All industrialised countries are at risk, but it’s the eurozone – with its vulnerable structures – that points most clearly to our potentially unpleasant collective futures.

As a result of the continuing euro crisis, the European Central Bank (ECB) now finds itself buying up the debt of all the weaker eurozone governments, making it the – perhaps unwittingly – feudal boss of Europe. In the coming years, the ECB and the European Union will dictate policy. The policy elite who run these structures – along with their allies in the private sector – are your new overlords

It is arguable who exactly are the peasants, the vassals and the lords under this model – and what services will end up being exchanged, but there is no question we are seeing a sea change in the post-war system of property, power and prosperity across Western Europe, just as Hayek feared. An overwhelming debt burden will bring down even the proudest people.

The ECB-EU approach will not return countries to reasonable levels of growth – the debt overhang is simply too large. The southern and western periphery of the eurozone cannot grow out of their debts under these arrangements and so will stumble from stabilisation programme to stabilisation programme – as did Latin America in the 1980s. This is bound to lead to hostile politics, social unrest and more economic crises.

The debt crisis must be addressed and I don’t disagree with their assertion that corporate-government collusion is a serious problem (See my article on Davos Capitalism) though I am unclear on how “Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests” exactly go together, or what they mean by “unfettered free markets.” Since Johnson and Kwak argue in 13 Bankers that we’ve had a type of oligarchic capitalism and Johnson and Boone matter of factly talk about “welfare socialism” I assume they aren’t arguing that the Europe or the US have had laissez faire free markets over the last decades, so I am not exactly sure what they mean. But on to their main points.

Johnson and Boone argue that current debt levels and the lack of political will to do anything about it will end up wreaking havoc on EU countries and ultimately on the US and the world.

The UK and US need to prepare themselves for more storms. The United States will be in the pleasant position as the world’s safe haven, but this will only encourage America’s profligate politicians to spend more and build more debt.

The UK will bear much more pain from euro devaluation and financial dislocation, all exacerbated by its own large deficit and debts. We might well see one more invasion across the channel, this time by bond vigilantes who question Britain’s ability to rein in inflation as it builds too large debts.

At the end of this great tumult, Europe and the UK will have sound fiscal regimes. Debt will be defaulted on or inflated away, and nations will have dramatically cut spending.

Hayek’s predicted demise of western society as he knew it will prove correct, but welfare socialism will prove the victim, erased by a political and financial elite gone awry.

Interesting and worrying stuff and the article is well worth reading as is 13 Bankers. But one thing the authors seem to ignore in this piece is that while welfare socialism may be the victim of the collapse (not a bad thing in my estimation), it is fully a culprit as well.

It is precisely a massive welfare state that is a part of the problem. It not only requires outlandish and unsustainable spending on the parts of governments who are afraid to address the challenge lest they lose popular support. But it also encourages a culture of irresponsibility, and inculcates a sentiment in the population that you can maintain an pleasant middle class life indefinitely without actually having to produce goods and services that people want and need. They suggest several austere measures as a solution but doubt the political will to achieve it. What may be really needed is a complete rethinking of the role of government and the whole idea of the current welfare state. That would not only require political courage, but cultural rejuvenation and this is something neither politicians nor bankers can provide.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Our economic life is concerned with more than just the objective exchange of goods and services. Far from being morally neutral, it is an expression of how we understand our dependence on God and neighbor and is the means by which we fulfill, or not, our obligations toward them. Both for reasons of morality as well as long term economic efficiency, we cannot overlook or minimize the centrality of personal virtue, and of a culture of virtue, to the success of the free market. It is not enough for me to be good; we must be good together. Or at minimum, and whatever our personal moral shortcomings, culturally we must value and reward moral excellence.

Jack Cashill understands this and in his new book, Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, he traces the changing moral attitudes towards lending and borrowing in Western culture. From the beginning the author is clear that we cannot separate a conversation about debt and credit, and so the economics of the free market, from a conversation about our personal and cultural moral lives.

Quickly the author takes us through some 25 centuries of social history. Along the way we hear from Dante and Shakespeare. To my delight, The Merchant of Venice has a recurring role in Cashill’s analysis and he uses effectively the changing portrayals of Shylock to illustrate shifting cultural attitudes toward debt.

Aristotle and Aquinas also make an appearance and join a cast that includes Medieval popes, Renaissance Jewish lenders, Protestant Reformers, 19th Century American robber barons and financiers. And of course our favorite villains, the bankers, lenders and borrowers who figure so prominently in the recent economic collapse make an appearance. Though the tone is at time a bit too flippant for my tastes (especially when discussing the Medieval Catholic Church), the text offers a good historical overview of the cultural and moral debate about debt. Throughout the author highlights intimate connection between moral character and economic life.

Cashill locates our current distress in the gradual cultural changes in the “fifty or so years since interest rates” were last at 1 percent. This cultural shift has “had less to do with the behavior” of lenders and more to do with our unwillingness to censure “the behavior of consumers, especially the prodigal” among us. While not minimizing the “downside” of “major investment houses” shifting “from partnerships to corporations” (which both “democratized Wall Street” even as “it diminished long-term loyalty and distanced executives from the consequences of failure”) he locates our moral failure in our growing evermore “dependent on credit.”

Through governmental and private institutions, Western culture is now eager “to oblige its prodigals” and extend to them the credit that allows them to live, for a short time at least, above their means. In addition where once we thought of “prodigals as sinners” today we “think of them as they think of themselves–as victims.” Cashill points out that “the real divide in America today is not between left and right but between those who would sympathize” with the prodigals among us “and those who would not.” While we condemn “predatory lenders” we never even discuss, much less censure, the”predatory borrower” who also played a central role in the collapse of the housing market.

Ideally our willingness to go into debt reflects our confidence in the future and rather than a desire to fulfill momentary desires. For this reason, we should think of debt, as Cashill does (and as Western cultural has historically) as a profoundly moral and is not simply economic question. Because we have lost sight of the necessary connection between virtue and an efficient free market, we now face a widespread lack of confidence in the economy.

Our lack of confidence reflects a more fundamental a lack of trust in the future. To borrow from moral theology, the economic crisis is a crisis of despair; we have lost faith in the goodness of tomorrow.

So how do we reclaim hope in the economic sphere? As Aristotle has it, we must be “liberal.”

Needless to say Aristotelian liberality is markedly different than our contemporary understanding. For Aristotle to be liberal means that we not spend more than we have and then spend only “on the right objects.”

But true liberality can only exist within a living tradition of moral virtue. In our current circumstances we are sorely tempted to settle for merely technical solutions. Yes, these are important but what is needed most is repentance and the cultivation of the cardinal, and dare I say, theological, virtues. Whether this will happen or not depends on how we exercise our personal freedom and the decisions we make as a culture.

In any case Cashill’s work offers us a sound foundation from which to argue in the public square that our economic pursuits must take place within a “culture of life” and this is necessary not only morally but also for the efficient working of the free market.