Posts tagged with: federal government

The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)

On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.

What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”

2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.

My contribution to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton email newsletter here.

Protect the Poor, Not Poverty Programs

By John Couretas

One of the disturbing aspects of the liberal/progressive faith campaign known as the Circle of Protection is that its organizers have such little regard – indeed are blind to — the innate freedom of the human person.

Their campaign, which has published “A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor,” equates the welfare of the “least of these” in American society to the amount of assistance they receive from the government — a bizarre view from a community that trades in spiritual verities. Circle of Protection supporters see people locked into their circumstances, stratified into masses permanently in a one-down position, thrown into a class struggle where the life saving protection of “powerful lobbies” is nowhere to be found. And while they argue that budgets are moral documents, their metrics for this fiscal morality are all in dollars and cents.

Not only does the Circle of Protection group appear to be oblivious to the power of private charity and church-based outreach to the needy, but they seem to have no hope for the poor outside of bureaucratic remedies. This is a view of the human person not as a composite of flesh and spirit, but as a case number, a statistic and a passive victim of the daily challenges and troubles that life brings.

In response to the Circle of Protection campaign, another faith group has formed with a very different outlook on the budget and debt debates that will consume the political energy of the country in the months ahead. Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) argue for policies that are focused less on protecting poverty programs and more on protecting the poor (I am a supporter). In a letter to President Obama, CASE wrote:

We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.

This is what Fr. Peter-Michael Preble was getting at when he observed that “… the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country.” This is not, he added, an argument to eliminate all government assistance but rather for “a safety net and not a lifestyle.”

In discussing the relative merits of the Circle of Protection and the Christians for a Sustainable Economy campaign, Michael Gerson wrote that “the Circle’s approach is more urgent.” Arguing against “disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable,” he asserted that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt.”

It’s a big and growing “sliver.” According to a Heritage Foundation study of welfare spending, of the 70-odd means-tested programs run by the federal government, “almost all of them have received generous increases in their funding since President Obama took office.” The president’s 2011 budget will increase spending on welfare programs by 42 percent over President Bush’s last year in office. Analyst Katherine Bradley observed that “total spending on the welfare state (including state spending) will rise to $953 billion in 2011.”

Instead of more billions for failed poverty programs, CASE argues that “all Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.” Underlying this is a belief that the human person is able to freely and creatively anticipate what life may bring, rather than wait around for a caseworker or a Washington lobbyist to intervene.

That freedom explains why some people, even in difficult economic times, can move up the income scale despite assertions that they are among the “most vulnerable.” A U.S. Treasury study showed that “nearly 58 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile (the lowest 20 percent) in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of the households in the second-lowest quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005.” In an analysis of income inequality and social mobility, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that there is a confusion “between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.”

Income mobility is debated endlessly by economists, but it is the existential reality for countless Americans who have ever strived for something better — or suffered a setback in their hopes. Yet the one sure thing that will stifle this mobility is an economy in decline, with job creation slowed, and encumbered by ever higher federal budget deficits and debt. And that’s what we’ll get more of if the Circle of Protection’s prescriptions for a “moral budget” hold sway.

When economic systems break down, as they are now unraveling in some European welfare states, those who will be hurt first and hardest will be the poor, the working family living from paycheck to paycheck, the pensioner – those operating at the margins. If we fail to come to grips with the reality of our potentially ruinous fiscal trajectory, we will all learn, as other countries are now learning, what “truly vulnerable” means.

I had the pleasure of appearing on Relevant Radio last Friday to talk to Sheila Liaugminas on her show, “A Closer Look.” I discussed the idea of “intergenerational justice,” a term favored by evangelicals (Roman Catholics tend to talk about “intergenerational solidarity”), and how that concept relates to much of today’s discussion about the federal budget.

One thing you hear from many is that we need a “both/and” solution: we need to both cut spending and raise revenue in order to close the annual deficits. I’m not really convinced of this, in part because the federal government has historically shown that increased revenue always results in increased spending. The government spends what it takes in, with a little bit more to boot. There has to be something structural and meaningful to stop this from continuing to happen, especially since we can’t count on the political culture to do so itself. Whether that structural obstacle is a balanced budget amendment or some other kind of binding agreement, something like that has to be put in place.

I don’t think it’s fair on the other side, though, to say that closing some tax loopholes, making tax avoidance more difficult, and simplifying the tax code is tantamount to “raising taxes” either. So in that sense there might be a case for raising revenues in this limited sense if it gets the tax system focused on what it is supposed to do (raise revenues) rather than using it as a tool for rent-seeking, social engineering, and pandering to special interests.

What’s more important than the question of revenues vs. cuts, however, is recognizing that the size of the federal government has stayed about roughly constant when you look at it in terms of tax receipts relative to GDP. Anthony Davies does a nice job illustrating this. He points out that the government basically takes in amounts roughly equal to 18% of GDP (+/- 2%). So that’s essentially what the government needs to learn to live on. By contrast, we’re spending about 24% of GDP this year, and that number only goes higher as entitlement promises come due.

So how about this for a both/and solution: we cut spending to get within a couple of percentage points of 18% of GDP and we focus on tax policies that will grow GDP in a sustainable way in the longer term.

My editorial, “Intergenerational Ethics and Economics,” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (more details about that issue here). In this short piece I explore some of the implications and intergenerational consequences of public debt. For this I take my point of departure with the much-discussed “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” but I also point out the importance of considering opportunity cost and how that concept has been applied in an analogous conversation about climate change. Focusing particularly on the current generations of workers, however, I observe:

Younger workers have not had as much time in the workplace to earn wages, collect benefits, and save, as those who have been working for decades and are nearing or have already entered retirement. As we learn from what has been called the “miracle of compounding interest,” small deductions of available capital at earlier points in time have major consequences for long-term growth.

In a recent piece for City Journal, Nicole Gelinas reflects on the federal government’s move to take on troubled securities from private firms. She writes,

The politicians we elect have three choices—the same choices they had four years ago. They can admit that this debt isn’t worth much and allow the financial sector to bear the consequences. They can hope that the Fed tries to use inflation to raise the price of everything else, making the debt seem a lighter burden in comparison. Or they can maintain their silence, letting the financial sector take another half-decade or more to make enough money on new ventures so that it can finally admit what it should have admitted back in the fall of 2007: bad debt is never good. At least the Fed acknowledges this strategy: it says that it’s using “time” to manage toxic securities and “minimize disruption to the financial markets.” But prolonging government control of financial markets just prolongs investors’ uncertainty.

Her conclusion underscores what I contend in the editorial about the importance of opportunity cost and the intergenerational effects of (in)action: “As the Fed notes, the cost of this policy isn’t measured in dollars but in something more precious: time. Washington’s refusal to confront the debt problem is costing millions the most productive years of their lives.”

Also in the current issue of the journal, James Alvey explores “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.” Buchanan has a good deal of interest to say on these questions, and Alvey concludes that “Buchanan’s favorite policy agenda, constitutional/legal limitations on public spending, deficits, and debt, needs to be revisited.”

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

Jim Wallis: Paul Ryan is A Bully & Hypocrite

Not so long ago, the Rev. Jim Wallis was positioning himself as the Chief Apostle of Civility, issuing bland pronouncements about all of us needing to get along. His “A Christian Covenant For Civility,” barely a year old, is now looking more tattered than a Dead Sea Scroll. Of course, he took up the civility meme back when he was hoping to brand the Tea Party as a horde of un-Christian, poor-hating libertarian bullying racists who enjoy nothing more than kicking widows and orphans with their hobnailed jackboots. Here he is last year warning America about the hostile Tea Party threat: “Honest disagreements over policy issues have turned into a growing vitriolic rage against political opponents, and even threats of violence against lawmakers are now being credibly reported.”

Ah, but the Apostle of Civility fled the agora. Right about the time that the vicious and violent attacks started on elected officials like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. It’s routine anymore to hear thuggish threats at state capital protests such as, “The only good Republican is a dead Republican” — and worse. (see video at bottom of post but be warned: rough images and language.)

Now, Wallis has returned, wearing the robes of an Old Testament Prophet, the scourge of those who would oppress the poor and bargaining unit members in threatened civil service classifications. The tip off was the title of his latest Huffington Post article, “Woe to You, Legislators!” Nice touch, that. More, from Wallis, who channels Isaiah:

You may think that my language sounds too strong: “bullies”, “corrupt”, “hypocrites.” But listen to the prophet Isaiah:

“Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?” (Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message)

Ryan’s budget seems to follow, almost line by line, the “oppressive statues” Isaiah rails against. Ryan’s budget slashes health care for the poor and elderly by gutting Medicaid and undermining Medicare, and cuts funding for food stamps, early childhood development programs, low-income housing assistance, and educational programs for students.

Phrases such as “gutting Medicaid” are not designed to inform, but to inflame. This is the work of a demagogue. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Do Less with Less: What the History of Federal Debt and Tax Leverage Teaches,” I reflect on how the federal government has lived beyond its means for decades. This reality is especially important to recognize as we approach Tax Day this year as well as in the context of debates about how to address the public debt crisis.

There are many who think we need to raise taxes in order to close the historic levels of deficit spending. In theory I would consider raising taxes as a viable option, or at least preferable to continued deficit spending, since it would at least make the real cost of government more visible. Roughly 40% of what the government spent last year was beyond what it took in.

But without structural connections between increased taxes and balancing the budget, there’s nothing at all to give us hope that the government wouldn’t simply continue to leverage the greater revenue into greater deficit spending. In this vein I note the conclusions recently updated by Richard Vedder and Stephen Moore, that “over the entire post World War II era through 2009 each dollar of new tax revenue was associated with $1.17 of new spending. Politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in—and a little bit more.”

Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith doesn’t take this reality into account, I don’t think, when he recently argued that the current situation calls for raising taxes, both on the rich and the middle-class. Thus, he writes,

But only a lazy, unimaginative take on this would assume that “low taxes” is a given. So sure, one strategy to reduce debt would be to slash spending, which inevitably happens on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children.

The alternative to such an unattractive option as Smith sees it is to raise taxes, particularly on the rich. Smith thus points to the idea that America needs to adopt a “graduated tax like most other North American countries.”

The fact is, though, that the US already has a progressive tax system, and indeed places a much higher relative burden on the top decile of household incomes than other developed nations.

One of the next big fights will be over raising the debt ceiling, as Smith points out. Perhaps we can link balanced budgets with increases on the debt ceiling (something more feasible than passing a balanced budget amendment). The idea would be that we only increase the debt ceiling on the condition balancing the annual budget, and that we only think about raising taxes to balance that budget if we actually commit to balancing it.

Simply raising taxes won’t do anything but give the federal government more money to leverage into higher levels of deficit spending.

I’m scheduled to discuss “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” with Paul Edwards later this afternoon (4:30 pm Eastern). You can listen to the live stream here and we’ll link to the archived audio as well.

You can check out my piece in last Saturday’s Grand Rapids Press, “Christ’s kingdom is bigger than the federal government,” and an Acton Commentary from last month, “Back to Budget Basics,” for background.

Be sure to visit Acton’s newly-released “Principles for Budget Reform,” too.

This graphic from NPR’s Planet Money also puts the looming “government shutdown” in perspective.

In today’s Grand Rapids Press I respond to a previous piece by religion columnist Charley Honey, “Religious voices have a place in the state’s budget cut discussions.”

I Hope I Die Before I Get OldI argue in “Christ’s kingdom is bigger than the federal government” that there is a basic confusion from many religious voices in the budget debate about the primary role of the federal government, and make the point that Abraham Kuyper’s “famous quotation attributes the claims of lordship over ‘every square inch’ of the world to Christ, not to the government. To miss this critical distinction is to undermine the very basis of Kuyper’s comprehensive and variegated social thought. For Kuyper, there are important differences among the responsibilities of the government, the church, the family, schools and a host of other social realities.”

I also refer to last month’s conversation with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” (audio here). Be sure to check out the event later this month where I’ll be a panelist to discuss these issues along with Strauss, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Jonathan Merritt, and Ryan Streeter, “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old,” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (the event will be streamed online for those fortunate enough not to live in or near the Beltway).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Back to Budget Basics,” I argue that the public debt crisis facing the federal government is such that “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.” This piece summarizes much of my analysis of various Christian budget campaigns over the last week (here, here, and here).

There are things that are more or less central to the primary task of government, and our spending priorities should reflect that relative proximity. Things like defense spending, whether or not these funds could be spent better and more efficiently, are central to the role of the federal government. Various kinds of social spending, whether or not they are good and effective, are not clearly so central.

I cite the example of Abraham Kuyper as a model to follow in attempting to outline the various responsibilities of social institutions, especially the church and the government, with respect to poverty. Kuyper first says that any resort to government aid for the poor is “a blot on the honor” of Jesus Christ. This relief is first and foremost a task for Christians, not the government. But he also adds that if and when Christians fail in their charitable callings, the State must intervene, “quickly and sufficiently” (snel en voldoende). The “sufficiency” of this response lies at least in part in its ability to address the need and move on, stepping in quickly, addressing the problem sufficiently, and stepping back out.

We have gotten to where we are in this country in part, at least, because private and Christian charity did not fulfill its mandate, at least not completely. But the whole point of “sufficient” government intervention is to be a stop-gap, a last and temporary resort, that provides space for other institutions to step back in and resume their basic responsibilities. It is thus not a permanent and primary purpose of government, particularly at the federal level, to provide direct material assistance to the poor.

My fear is that the social spending at the federal level has moved far beyond intervening “quickly and sufficiently,” and has increasingly crowded out other subsidiary institutions from meeting needs more locally and less centrally. What we need now is not to privilege such government intervention as a fixture of our society, but to reinvigorate and empower other institutions to relieve these burdens from the government. Otherwise government intervention often becomes an obstacle to, rather than a servant of, true justice.