Would dissolving the European common currency, as proposed by the French free-market economist and entrepreneur Charles Gave in his book Libéral mais non coupable (“Liberal But Not Guilty”) free the Old Continent to stand upright on its financial feet again? Or would dissolving the currency drastically end the European project altogether, as some pro-Euro technocrats in Brussels fear?
Charles Gave, the chairman of the investment firm GaveKal, (and whose lecture I listened to at a 2011 Acton Conference Family Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty in Rome), offers an excellent economic policy analysis in answering these urgent questions. However, as you will read below, the European side of the financial crisis cannot be fixed in purely economic terms.
In his chapter “Europe: A Turtle on its Back”, Gave says that the EU’s already slow-moving economic tortoise is now in a worse position while laying flat on its back – its shell “heavily weighed down by a systemic debt trap” whose origins are found in keeping the common currency afloat at all costs.
Gave believes that the only way to get the turtle walking upright again would be lighten its load by effectively dissolving the heavily debt-tied euro and restoring national currencies to pre-1999 monetary standards. In Gave’s opinion, a restoration of national currencies across the Eurozone would force member states to return to a culture of self-reliance, that is to say, to count more on their own national fiscal and monetary means and standards.
The positive effect would also mean abandoning the quasi-idolatrous ways in which Europeans go to save their common currency while closing a blind eye to less responsible member states’ reckless spending.
Gave’s criticism of local/national responsibilities and the very origins of debt raise deeper questions about the cause of the European debt and monetary crises, but it is far from offering a more complete picture of the problem.
Europe does indeed face huge monetary challenges. Having a common currency while permitting euro-members to violate mutually-agreed debt limits was always a recipe for disaster. Greece could happily splurge on adding tens of thousands of public sector workers to the government’s payroll and financing Chicago-esque patronage politics, while Portugal built dozens of now-idle, often half-finished soccer stadiums. Why? Because everyone knew if things went bad, then preserving the euro (a ‘sacred cow’ for Europe’s political class) from the impact of nations’ defaulting meant that heavyweights like Germany would go to considerable lengths to try and prevent a currency-meltdown.
Yet this amounts to only a partial — and therefore inadequate — explanation of Europe’s present disarray…[It] can’t disguise the truth that there’s something even more fundamental driving Europe’s economic crisis.
From the beginning, post-war Social Democracy’s goal … was to use the state to realize as much economic security and equality as possible, without resorting to the outright collectivization pursued by the comrades in the East. In policy-terms, that meant extensive regulation, legal privileges for trade unions, “free” healthcare, subsidies and special breaks for politically-connected businesses, ever-growing social security programs, and legions of national and EU public sector workers to “manage” the regulatory-welfare state…with little-to-no experience of the private sector.
None of this was cost-free. It was financed by punishing taxation and, particularly in recent years, public and private debt. In terms of outcomes, it has produced some of the developed world’s worst long-term unemployment rates, steadily-declining productivity, and risk-averse private sectors.
In sum, the idolatrous preservation of a European common currency and the ensuing “debt trap” and “domino default” which Gave articulates in his book is more fully understood when we link the European financial crisis to a crisis of Christianity — a faith which makes challenging demands on practicing members’ moral interrelationships, levels of risk aversion, and practical ways in which they care for fellow citizens and see their moral duties relation to their neighbor and society.
Christianity, as defined so well by the Catholic Church’s teachings on subsidiarity, demands that social problems must be first solved at the individual, local level. Only if the local and personal proves insufficient should the problem to be taken to higher levels, with the state as the means of last resort.
Subsidiarity – a guiding principle to all responsible Christians – helps limit public debt by relegating moral duties first and foremost to the private sphere. Subsidiarity is a check against forms of collectivization and the expensive public costs involved. When too much of the moral duty is placed on the state, public costs grow and debt is possible. When it is not, the state’s welfare machine is tends to shut down.
In conclusion, if it is true that the vast majority of Europeans no longer practice their Christian faith or take their charitable duties very seriously, one can rightly doubt how easily it will be them to free themselves from the weight of unsustainable debt (see also Sam Gregg’s ALS lecture below on this topic). If non-practicing Europeans tend to pass on more of their individual moral responsibilities to the state for the welfare of the elderly, sick and need people of society, it ends up being a costly delegation of Christian freedom and responsibility. In economic consequences, this makes the EU a fertile ground for a systemic debt traps and precarious monetary crises.
Kishore Jayabalan, the Acton Institute’s Rome office director, was interviewed by the Zenit news agency in an article titled, “Is Taxing the Church a Real Solution for Italy?” In the article, Jayabalan discusses the history of the Italian state and its imposition of property taxes on the Roman Catholic Church’s land holdings, residences and non-profit businesses.
Sometimes in the past, particularly under Napoleonic rule and before the Lateran Pacts, the institution of property tax was often a subject of state persecution of the Church in economic terms. Mr. Jayabalan answers critical questions about the reasons behind Italy’s evolving (or rather “revolving”) fiscal policies and historic land expropriations to the Church’s detriment.
The Church has traditionally been exempt from paying ICI [property tax] on non-commercial entities because they serve a social purpose. The old law actually exempted entitles that were ‘predominantly’ non-commercial. The new law exempts simply non-commercial entities, so there will be some re-defining of what is non-commercial or not by the Italian Ministry of the Economy. Jewish, Muslim, and other religious, and for that matter secular, non-profits were also ICI-exempt, so this was not a case of special pleading for the Catholic Church in Italy, even though Catholic institutions dwarf the others numerically…
Of course this is not the first time the Church has been muscled out of land. Napoleon’s massive cash taxes upon his conquest of Italy were designed to force noble families (generally with very close ties to the Church) out of their lands and titles. Napoleon spared the Church the niceties of taxes, choosing to simply expropriate the property. The unification of Italy as well saw Church lands, art and lives lost as the new nation was formed. But even this was nothing new. After all Nero had blamed the Christians for a fire he set to clear some land in downtown Rome, so in the end Sts. Peter and Paul and 900 other Christians were killed for a real estate deal.
To read Jayabalan’s full interview, go here.
Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:
In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.
As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.
But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.
More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?
Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.
Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.
Last week the Acton Institute hosted its third annual Chicago Open Mic Night downtown at the University Club. Three panelists answered questions about — you guessed it — economics and a virtuous society from the audience.
Acton executive director Kris Alan Mauren emceed the event, and our president Rev. Robert A. Sirico was the first panelist. Heather Wilhelm, a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.com, and Brian Wesbury, chief economist at First Trust Advisors and a frequent guest on Fox, CNBC, and Bloomberg TV, rounded out the panel.
The general theme of the night was something like, “how do we get the economy going again?” The panel’s general answer was optimistic: “It already is — just keep government out of the way.”
Mr. Wesbury was back after his popular commentary last year, and he delivered again this year: the last questioner got a friendly-but-stern talking-to after asking how the U.S. economy could possibly keep chugging along after the blows it has been dealt since 2008.
Whether the question was about the role of the Federal Reserve, the desirability of continued stimulus, or presidential candidates’ tax policy, the panelists generally agreed: the parts of the economy that government (particularly the Federal Government) hasn’t tried to help are doing much better than sectors like housing where sophisticated Keynesian policy instruments have been brought to bear.
Wilhelm quoted H.L. Mencken to great effect: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it.”
The task for current generations, Sirico said, is to learn from the failures of the baby boomers and to take up wholeheartedly the task of rejuvenating the culture, and he sees in the Tea Party, in homeschooling movements, and in a return to traditionalism, signs that that moral rejuvenation is happening.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.
According to the authors,
In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.
The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,
Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.
Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)
In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.
What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability. Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.
For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”
He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.
Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.
Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”
But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.
First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.
Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.
Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”
If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.
Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).
Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.
Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.
Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.
Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.
Acton’s tireless director of research Samuel Gregg has a post up at NRO’s The Corner in reaction to yesterday’s bad poverty numbers (46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line now—2.6 million more than last year). Gregg is ultimately not surprised about the increase, because not only does the American welfare state produce long term dependence on governmental support, but the huge debt incurred by poverty programs tends to slow economic growth.
It is now surely clear that the trillions of dollars expended on welfare programs since the not-so-glorious days of the 1960s have not apparently made much of a dent in significantly changing the ratio of Americans in poverty.
In some instances, America’s welfare apparatus may have prevented some people (especially the elderly) from falling into abject poverty. There is, however, very little evidence that it has helped millions of people out of relative poverty. There is also plenty of data to indicate that many welfare programs have produced intergenerational dependency on the state—a point that even Bill Clinton seemed to have grasped by the mid-1990s.
Gregg then warns against the temptation to double down on government-as-the-answer, arguing that we don’t have the fiscal leeway to experiment as we did in the 1960s.
We need to keep these serious failures of America’s welfare state in mind because these new poverty numbers will almost certainly be used as an argument by some people of good will (as well as those whose motives are far less noble) to resist any reductions in welfare spending, despite America’s far-from-healthy debt and deficit situation. Yet the sheer size of government spending on entitlement programs (by far the biggest item in the federal government’s budget) makes cuts in these areas inescapable if—I repeat, if—our political masters are serious about wanting to balance the government’s books.
Indeed, such cuts are assuming an ever-increasing urgency in light of the studies which continue to appear indicating that crushing levels of public and government debt run the risk of significantly impeding growth. That’s worrying, not least because a slowdown in growth will hurt those in poverty far more than the wealthy. Strong growth rates are one of the most powerful antidotes to poverty – just ask anyone living in mainland China or India. More welfare spending is simply not the answer.
Full post here.
Economic historian Brian Domitrovic has an interesting post up at his Forbes blog, Past & Present, on the proximate causes of the 2008 meltdown. According to Domitrovic, uncoordinated, even “weird” fiscal and budgetary policy in the early 2000s kept investors on the sidelines, and then flooded the system with easy money. The chickens came home to roost in 2008 (and they’re still perched in the coop).
In 2000, as the stock market was treading water in the context of the mammoth surplus and the electoral contest over fiscal policy, it was indicating that investors wanted to see what would ensue. What came was poorly-crafted tax policy and movement to gobble up the surplus on the spending side.
[After the crash of 2001-2003 and brief recession] the Federal Reserve stepped in to try to pick up the slack since fiscal policy had gotten weird. It was then, 2001-2003, that the Fed plumbed new lows in the federal funds rate
Finally, in 2003, Bush announced that the marginal rate of the income tax would be taken down immediately and somewhat substantially, to 35%. The Fed pivoted to raise rates, giving us an approximation of the Reagan-Volcker policy mix of the 1980s of real tax cuts and tight-ish money.
But for several years, too much money had been in the system, and it proceeded to migrate to monetary policy hedges, above all oil and land, the latter especially desirable because housing debt was fulsomely guaranteed.
Not only were these policies imprudent from a cold hard economic point of view, they weren’t capable of producing the human benefits they were supposed to. The false compassion of Bush-era conservatism is tied up with both the over-spending of the 2000s and the imprudent loans encouraged by an ultra-low interest rate environment and the “Ownership Society” of the 2004 campaign.
Government compassion does nothing to empower the poor—rather than pulling them out of poverty, it encourages reliance and assails their dignity. No matter how nice everyone’s being, nothing changes. And while some of the instincts behind the Ownership Society were right, the idea that it would be good for people to own houses they couldn’t properly afford was destructive. It severed the natural connection between labor and its results.
Domitrovic goes on:
The primary question we must ask about the 2000s is not what caused the crisis as the decade came to a close, but why was growth so subpar the whole time? Ultimately financial crises reflect the declining potential of the real economy to deliver…
And of course the economy will not grow and wealth will not be created under policies which undermine the dignity of Man’s labor. By reducing economics to fiscal calculus, academics and policy makers throw out half their toolbox: if the fiscal and budgetary warnings weren’t enough from 2000 to 2008, there were also human and moral warnings. Domitrovic (who, to be clear, is not one of those who has thrown out half his toolbox) concludes:
By rights, today we should not be mired in economic malaise; rather, we should be enjoying a fourth decade of prosperity on the heels of the roaring 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
By rights indeed, but our economists have cast off right, and reduced their science to a materialist one.
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.