Posts tagged with: federal government

In this week’s commentary, which will appear tomorrow, I summarize and explore a bit more fully some of the discussion surrounding evangelical and religious engagement of the budget battles in Washington. One of my core concerns is that the approaches seem to assume too much ongoing and primary responsibility on the part of the federal government for providing direct material assistance to the poor. As “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” puts it, “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.”

In one real sense this perspective lets Christians, individually and corporately, off the hook too easily. I highlight the following quote from Abraham Kuyper: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”

My basic contention is that we can only move to address the secondary role of governments of various levels (local first, federal last!) providing relief when we have thoroughly grappled with Kuyper’s basic insight here. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef explore this dynamic in a bit more detail in their Deacons Handbook, in a section on “The Church and the Welfare State.” They take as their starting point the position that “Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.”

In this way their emphasis is on revitalizing the diaconate first. They recognize that in many ways the government has filled in the gaps, but in so doing has often eroded the foundations and space for other organizations to step back in and fulfill their own mandates. DeKoster and Berghoef, writing in 1980, anticipate something like the faith-based initiative as part of the move back for the church to meet its social responsibility.

I’m less sanguine about that proposed solution, but I do think that the tax credits for charitable giving are something that ought to be protected, or perhaps even enhanced (President Obama’s latest proposal would limit exemptions for wealthy citizens.). In this context it is also worth noting the conclusions of a recent NBER paper, which shows that government subsidy tends to “crowd out” the initiative of private institutions from seeking their own sources of funding (imagine that!).

Kuyper’s quote comes from his opening address to the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, and is published in translation as “The Problem of Poverty.”

Update: Over at the CRC Network, Karl Westerhoff, who guides the “Deacons” topic, asks some pertinent questions:

But how is this a diaconal matter? Well, I’m wondering…. Does this national conversation have echoes in our churches? In our families? Should it? Are there implications for how we make OUR budgets? And what about our families? Is there an opportunity here for some fresh conversation about family spending patterns? Can we talk about the choices we make with our money, and the expectations we have for the money we spend on charity? Where has the church spent benevolent money that really had the result we hoped for? What can we learn from that? How are we shaping our family lives and our congregational lives in ways that address need in truly Christ-like ways?

These are precisely the kinds of questions we need to be asking. I think what we’ll find is that government has a far larger and more expansive role in some of these answers than many often think.

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, December 16, 2010

In this week’s commentary I say that part of the reason less money is being given to local churches is that it is reflective of a broader trend of distrust towards institutions.

Commentary magazine’s blog contentions has some more recent data confirming this overall shift. The post summarizes the December issue of AEI’s “Political Report” (PDF), which focuses especially on trust in the government. It finds that “contemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep” and that, for instance, “Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991.”

But more broadly and inline with what I point to in this week’s commentary, we find that this lack of confidence in the government is not exception to the general loss of institutional faith. Indeed,

The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.

No doubt this applies to “big religion” as well. My friend John H. Armstrong has examined whether and why “young doubters” are leaving the church in seemingly greater numbers. And we can see how all this has negative implications for denominations and super-denominational structures (like the mainline ecumenical groups). As I argue in Ecumenical Babel, this means that many of these institutions might well be ripe for reform, in part because that is their only avenue for survival.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 6, 2010

There’s an old saying to the effect: “Show me a man’s checkbook and I’ll show you what’s important to him.”

It may not be quite the same as a checkbook, but NPR’s Planet Money passes along what a receipt from the federal government might look like for an average taxpayer (HT):


As Third Way, who put together the taxpayer receipt, argues:

An electorate unschooled in basic budget facts is a major obstacle to controlling the nation’s deficit, not to mention addressing a host of economic and social problems. We suggest that everyone who files a tax return receive a “taxpayer receipt.” This receipt would tell them to the penny what their taxes paid for based on the amount they paid in federal income taxes and FICA.

From this receipt, what’s important to the federal government, and what does that say about our society?

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Among the warnings sounded as the Democratic health care reform bill was being debated was that the federal insurance mandate included in the bill—even though not national health care per se—would essentially give the federal government control of the insurance industry. The reason: If everyone is forced to buy insurance, then the government must deem what sort of insurance qualifies as adequate to meet the mandate. This piece of Obamacare promises to turn every medical procedure into a major political fight, with special interest lobbying rather than objective medical expertise being more likely to determine what kind of health care gets covered and what kind doesn’t.

The problem goes beyond ugly politics, however, and into the realm of moral repugnance. The contention has already started, as the Catholic bishops have formally protested the pending inclusion of contraception and sterilization among items that must be covered in every American insurance plan.

Whether one agrees with Catholic morality is beside the point. The point is that this is no way to deal with a major economic sector in a free, pluralist society. Some medical doctors think chiropractors are quacks; some chiropractors think medical doctors are quacks. Some people think marijuana is an excellent pain killer; others think it is an immoral drug. The goods and services that the 300 million people in this country consider to be effective—or objectionable—instances of health care vary, sometimes dramatically, according to geography, culture, religion, and ethnicity. Now a single institution, the national government in the form of the Department of Health and Human Services, is charged with arbitrating which goods and services make the cut and which don’t. Those who lack the political clout to get their preferences included will pay coming and going: their insurance premiums will cover things that they don’t want and they’ll have to pay out of pocket for things that they do.

The variety offered by a medical market is a beautiful thing. Monolithic medicine mandated by a law that most Americans opposed is not.

From an Aug. 26 Christian Post story. (HT: Mirror of Justice):

More than 100 religious organizations are urging members of Congress to reject pending legislation that would prohibit them from considering religion when hiring.

A letter – endorsed by such groups as World Vision, Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops, and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – was delivered Wednesday.

“The law has long protected the religious freedom of both the people who receive government-funded services, and the groups that provide the services – long before President Obama, and long before President Bush,” said Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel of USCCB, in a statement. “Stripping away the religious hiring rights of religious service providers violates the principle of religious freedom, and represents bad practice in the delivery of social services.”

The groups are protesting a provision in HR 5466 – a bill introduce in the House in May that would reauthorize federal substance abuse treatment funding that is administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the bill includes language banning faith-based groups from receiving federal funds if they consider religion in their hiring process.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 23, 2008

You can view the most recent list of those companies that have received bailout assistance from the federal government via the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (EESA), executed through measures like the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), here (PDF updated 12/16/08).

I’m thinking about adding these companies to my own personal “naughty” list.

Visit the EESA homepage, where you can sign up for EESA e-mail updates as your tax dollars are spent for you. “How is this money being spent?” you might ask. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, the government has not required any special reporting for how the bailees are using these funds.

Remember that rush to push the bailout through right before the election, when the government and the media were telling us that Congress needed to hurry up and authorize the use of more money than has been spent on the entire Iraq war? The legislation appears to be so sloppy that it allows the executive branch to distribute the funds as it pleases, without any accountability for how the funds are being spent, and without any restrictions on what sort of industry qualifies.

I guess it’s more important that the money gets spent rather than how it gets spent.

Since government is now in the business of rewarding failure (call it a “demeritocracy”), nominate those most deserving of money from the bailout in the comment boxes below. Here’s a list to get you started:

One aspect of the recent discussion over the faith-based initiative, focused anew because of Barack Obama’s pledge to expand the executive effort, is the importance of the White House office as a model and catalyst for similar efforts at the state and local levels.

In the Spring 2006 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we published a Symposium with papers based on a discussion titled, “The Ethics of Faith-Based Policy,” sponsored by the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University on April 12, 2005. All of the papers are worth perusing:

The piece by Rush-Sisterhen, who was then director of the State of Ohio’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and Stalker connect the phenomenon that I raised at the beginning of this post: “In 2001, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was created by executive order. Shortly after this event, offices of the same type began to appear within individual states, most notably in Ohio.”

They conclude the piece by observing,

Another topic that demands continued research is that of the effectiveness of faith-based initiatives in various states. Although the Ohio office was created with biartisan legislation, many of the other offices throughout the nation were created by executive order, giving them varying amounts of power and restriction. Each state’s program should be studied individually and compared to other states to continually improve the system. When one state is found to be successful, their methods should be shared and reviewed for conceivability in other states. This will help to keep the system fresh and adjusting to our changing society.

By 2007, a mere six years after the formation of the White House office, 33 governors and more than 100 mayors had established Faith-Based and Community Initiative offices or liaisons (the numbers cited by the White House for last month’s national conference are a bit different: “35 governors – 19 Democrats and 16 Republicans – have their own faith-based and community initiatives. Additionally, more than 70 mayors of both parties have similar programs at the municipal level.”).

The long-term trickle-down effect of the formation and orientation of the federal office on the initiatives at various other levels of government will be just as important as, if not more than, the direct impact of the White House office itself. As any expert on effective compassion can tell you, the more locally affiliated the effort, the more likely it is to be successful and effective.

Barack Obama recently announced that he wishes to expand President Bush’s program of public funding for religious charities. In his latest piece for National Review Online Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, warns us of some of the dangers of federal funding for faith-based charities.

Rev. Sirico writes:

The lesson of this long history is that if you want to do religiously motivated work in the United States, it is best to do it on your own dime. This is what American culture expects, a belief rooted very deeply in our history and current practice. I believe that this practice is best for the health of religion and the health of the state. We all benefit by keeping religion separate from the public sector so that it can better grow, flourish, and transform society.

The fact that Obama intends to expand government funding (and control) to religious charities should not be surprising, however, because it falls in line with his philosophy on the role of government. In his article, Rev. Sirico elaborates on this:

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised that Obama is warm to this idea. It is part of his intellectual apparatus and part of the party he will represent in the election. He believes in government and all its pomps, and never misses a chance to say that something good should be subsidized by the public sector. This accords with his philosophy.