Posts tagged with: Intergenerational equity

While there is much to applaud in the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action’s “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” the lack of discussion of the problem of economic growth is troubling. I believe Don Peck is correct when he writes in The Atlantic:

If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men—and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.

The only solution here seems to be economic growth. And while tackling the staggering problem of the debt is an integral component to ensuring the younger generation gets a fair shot to succeed the first and most pressing issue is employment itself. There is little in ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice’ that takes this challenge seriously as it calls for cuts in programs (Such as military spending and business subsidies) which do create jobs for many Americans. This is not to say that these cuts should be taken off the table but rather that there needs to be an acknowledgement that these cuts will also affect Americans negatively and may, in the short term at least, add to the ranks of the poor in America.

These are not easy questions to answer but I believe that any solution to the question of intergenerational justice must begin with the question of economic growth. We need solutions that empower entrepreneurs, invigorate the private sector, and accelerate economic growth informed by an understanding of the role of markets and free enterprise.

I’m not sure I have ever really encountered the term intergenerational justice before this discussion over “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” at least in any substantive way. This unfamiliarity is what lay behind my initial caveat regarding the term, my concern that it not be understood as “code for something else.”

The Call itself provides a decent definition of the concept, or at least of its implications: “…that one generation must not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another.”

One of the commenters here at the PowerBlog is Peter Vander Meulen, who runs the Office of Social Justice at the Christian Reformed Church (the denomination to which I belong). Vander Meulen rightly reiterates that much of the disagreement has to do with our differing views of the primary responsibilities of government.

Much of my concern with the Call is that is does not display enough in terms of substantive commitment to principles. I think our debates about the budget crisis need to lead us back to consider from first principles what the role of government in society ought to be relative to other social institutions. (I hope to provide more on that positively later this week.)

It is on this point that my concern about the invocation of intergenerational justice in this context, and social justice more broadly, is not being construed in a vigorous enough manner.

To put it bluntly: How can a call for intergenerational justice in particular, or social justice more broadly, have any plausibility without addressing the fundamental social problem of abortion? If intergenerational justice is about the duties and responsibilities from one generation to another, it seems obvious that the starting point of the discussion, from a particularly evangelical and even more broadly Christian perspective, should be on the question of whether that next generation has a right to come into existence in the first place.

It is an unfortunate reality that social justice and abortion are oftentimes not viewed as related in this way. Acton Institute research fellow Anthony Bradley wrote last week at WORLD’s site about how abortion is often not considered a priority justice issue. In the context of the abortion rate in New York City, he writes,

I’ve been browsing the mercy and justice websites of several of New York’s well-known churches and Christian non-profit groups for discussion of New York’s abortion crisis. Outside of the crisis pregnancy centers themselves, I have not found much of anything. What one will find are very good discussions on subjects like fighting homelessness, improving inner-city education, opening women’s shelters, and dealing with sex trafficking and juvenile delinquency. I raise this issue because I am concerned that perhaps the missional pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

Closer to the context of this discussion, Mr. Vander Meulen’s agency, the Office of Social Justice (OSJ), was instructed by the denominational synod last year to “boldly advocate for the church’s position against abortion.” This instruction was deemed necessary because the OSJ did “not currently offer many resources to advocate for the unborn,” despite the fact that there is an official denominational position on the question of abortion (while there is not one on so many of the issues that the OSJ does “boldly advocate” for). You can judge for yourself whether that situation has changed substantively in the intervening time (e.g. “Advocacy…Coming Soon!”).

One of the signers of the Call, Jim Wallis, perhaps illustrates this illegitimate dichotomy between social justice and abortion in his judgments about the moral status of the abortion question. In a 2008 interview with Christianity Today. When pressed on this point, Wallis spoke candidly:

“I don’t think that abortion is the moral equivalent issue to slavery that Wilberforce dealt with. I think that poverty is the new slavery. Poverty and global inequality are the fundamental moral issues of our time. That’s my judgment.”

By contrast I do think the “Guideline on Human Life” offered by CPJ is rather more helpful and substantive than the current efforts of the OSJ to “boldly advocate” against abortion.

But shouldn’t consideration of abortion be a critical consideration in any discussion of “intergenerational justice”? The Call itself invokes the context of “generations yet unborn” and the relationship between “grandparents” and “grandchildren.”

If the connection of abortion to the budget debate remains unclear to some in the context of intergenerational justice, we might raise the following considerations:

Does the Call adequately address government provision for funding of abortions, whether through entitlement coverage or through funding for organizations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood? There are clauses advocating that “Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded,” and that “We must control healthcare expenses.”

Is funding for Planned Parenthood support for “an effective program” that prevents suffering or something that should be cut?

And there are also clear demographic and population implications for questions of future funding of entitlements, including Social Security. As I noted above, I hope to make the link more clear later this week when I talk about the need to get back to basics in the budget crisis.

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.

I posted some initial thoughts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” which was released by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action yesterday.

I’ve been engaged in what I think are largely helpful conversations on this document in a number of venues in the meantime. Gideon Strauss challenged me to look at the document again, and reconsider my criticisms, and I have been happy to do so.

For instance, I voiced the concern that the core budgetary problem that must be addressed concerns entitlement spending, and I judged that the Call does not sufficiently address that concern. Gideon pointed me to a piece by Michael Gerson, a signer of the Call, that makes precisely this point: “Debates on discretionary spending are important. Our government should not waste money on ineffective programs. But discretionary spending is a sideshow, even a distraction, from the main governing task: getting entitlement spending under control so it does not crowd out all other government spending.”

I also made a related point that we should not be juxtaposing cuts in, for instance, defense spending with those on other discretionary areas, including social programs. As Gerson writes, these debates are largely a “sideshow.” And so Gideon also pointed me to today’s editorial about the Call, which makes a number of important points, not least of which is that “It would be simplistic to portray the present challenge as a simple matter of ‘guns vs. butter’ and to overemphasize the contribution that prudent reductions in defense spending, however necessary, would make to the current debt crisis.”

One further point of concern I voiced is that “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.” Gideon pointed me appropriately to the CPJ “Guideline on Government.”

These are all good and necessary documents for understanding the proper interpretive context for the Call, and I’ll admit, they weren’t the first things I thought of when attempting to understand the petition. I still wonder, though, why some of these things couldn’t be made more explicit in the document itself? If Gerson is right, that debates over discretionary cuts of whatever programs are really a distraction, why not make the focal point of the Call entitlement reform in a more central and explicit way?

And I do think there are other relevant interpretive contexts for understanding the Call. Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and a host of others have been involved over the last days and weeks in a “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign that bears many similarities to “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Much of the material surrounding that campaign does seem to focus on fights over discretionary cuts, even to the point of contrasting military and social spending.

Jim Wallis said, for instance, “On a television program yesterday evening, I said that I want those who now propose major cuts to critical low-income family support programs to say, out loud, that every item of Pentagon spending is more important to our well-being and security than school lunches, child health, and early education programs.” He goes on to highlight particular social spending programs that should be immune to potential cuts.

I don’t think that kind of rhetoric is helpful at all, and is more of what Gerson might call a “sideshow.” But it is important because there is so much continuity between the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign and the “Call for Intergenerational Justice.” A significant number of signers of the Call, including Wallis and Claiborne, also are behind WWJC. And even the language about cutting budgets “on the backs of the poor” is reiterated with respect to the Call. Signer Jonathan Merritt writes that the Call means “we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

So while the CPJ documents Strauss points to are certainly relevant to understanding the Call, I submit that the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is also relevant. And here we might have a hint at why some of the more substantive theoretical questions regarding the role of the state in the provision of various social goods is not examined in more detail in the Call itself: the signers don’t have a unified view on this principled point. The CPJ Guideline on Government is a good starting point, but I find it highly doubtful that it would be assented to by all of the signers of the Call.

So perhaps there really is more than one way to read this document, and it can be put to various uses by various constituencies. This ambiguity, combined with my own doubts about what it actually does substantively say, are enough for me to refrain from signing it, even while I most certainly do agree with the sentiment that the current debt burden is unsustainable, both fiscally as well as morally, and continue to respect the work of many of those who have signed it.

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.