Posts tagged with: social security

I recently came across an interesting academic journal, Diaconia: Journal for the Study of Christian Social Practice. One of the sample articles available is by Herman Noordegraaf of the Protestant Theological University in Leiden. His piece is titled, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor” (PDF).

The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality is a theme issue on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” and a series of pieces take up a line of recent history in the Netherlands. A significant article by Rolf van der Woude, senior researcher at the Historical Documentation Centre for Dutch Protestantism at the VU University Amsterdam, examines the changes in Reformed thought on the social question from the First Social Congress in 1891 to the Third Social Conference in 1952. As van der Woude concludes, in the post war era, “A new generation believed that the beast of the state, caged for so long, had now been tamed. At the end of the 1950s, Van den Heuvel’s generation retreated, the Netherlands entered a period of economic boom, and a generous welfare state was rapidly erected from the ground up wherein welfare was no longer a matter of charity but a matter of justice guaranteed by the government. The beast of the state had become an ally.”

Noordegraaf’s piece can be read as a companion article to van der Woude’s, tracing the development (or lack thereof) in Christian social thought in the Netherlands over the last half century. As Noordegraaf writes, the situation has largely remained the same, in that the church’s primary responsibility is understood not merely to have to provide material assistance to the poor, but rather advocate for reliance on the welfare state for such provision. As Noordegraaf writes, a declaration on the problem of poverty in 1987 codified the approach of “aid under protest,” in which the churches provide aid to the poor but only under protest that the government was not meeting welfare needs appropriately. The statement reads:

We reject the way people are once again made dependent on charity. We plead for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government. For this reason, financial aid given by churches in situations of need should be combined with protest against the causes of this need to government and society.

Noordegraaf’s observation is that the churches, both locally and denominationally, have been too concerned with meeting the momentary concrete needs of the poor and need to pay more attention to the mandate to lobby the government for more expansive social welfare programs. The point is that the need for Christian or church-based charity indicts the lack of justice under a modern constitutional state, where freedom from need and want ought to be simply guaranteed.

As Nordegraaf concludes concerning recent trends, “More and more, as the above mentioned reports show, churches have been involved in material aid: when people are in need and ask for help, you give it. It is a kind of safety net under the increasingly porous safety net of the state.” He continues, “The fact that the churches found this problematic reflects their belief that the principles of the welfare state are worth fighting for. This has to do with a vision of the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.” Noordegraaf concludes that “it is in harmony with the calvinist approach of the responsibility of the state that churches try to make clear to government and to society at large that they have helped with material aid. This signalizing can take many forms: in letters, reports, talks, discussions, programmes in the media, articles in newspapers and so on. In this way, individual aid is combined with advocacy in the public domain.”

I commend these two articles to your reading: Rolf van der Woude, “Taming the Beast: The Long and Hard Road to the Christian Social Conference of 1952,” and Herman Noordegraaf, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor.”

They will make clear just how much things have changed over the last 120 years in the Netherlands, when Abraham Kuyper emphasized the priority of Christian giving in 1881, arguing that “the holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.” Such emphasis on private Christian charity is now understood to be retrograde and obsolete.

Over at National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at a new study which shows a growing wealth gap between the senior set and those under the age of 35. The boomer generation also has the political clout to protect that security:

… another factor that makes older Americans’ economic position even more secure than that of younger generations is the disproportionate sway exerted by older folks on politics, much of which is directed to maintaining the entitlement status quo. From the narrow standpoint of their own economic self-interest, why should older people vote for the type of entitlement reform that is indispensible if America is to get its public-debt problem under control? Many of this quite numerous demographic will ask, why should they have to scrimp after having paid into Social Security all their working lives?

Members of the supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion to cut from the deficit surely know that proposals such as raising the retirement age are bound to encounter enormous opposition from AARP-like groups — especially the ones dominated by those baby boomers who are now retiring and whose entire lives have reflected an après moi, le déluge mentality. Supercommittee members are also no doubt conscious that older people — many of whom are already very unhappy about Obamacare’s forthcoming changes to Medicare — have an alarming habit of turning out to vote in far greater numbers than their children and grandchildren.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “America’s Gerontocracy” on NRO.

Also see PowerBlog postings on “intergenerational justice” by Jordan Ballor, executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

Roger Scruton has written an excellent piece on the moral basis of free markets; it’s up at MercatorNet. He begins with the Islamic proscriptions of interest charged, insurance, and other trade in unreal things:

Of course, an economy without interest, insurance, limited liability or the trade in debts would be a very different thing from the world economy today. It would be slow-moving, restricted, and comparatively impoverished. But that’s not the point: the economy proposed by the Prophet was not justified on economic grounds, but on moral grounds, as an economy of righteous conduct.

Our long-term economic malaise may mystify world leaders, but Scruton sees its causes clearly: ways intended to speed economic development have become ways to acquire luxuries without payment; we have confused trade in debts with others’ assumption of our debts. This moral confusion is as much to be found in governments as it is in private markets, because the incentives are exactly the same — anyone who denies it is lying.

If you borrow money you are obliged to repay it. And you should repay it by earning the sum required, and not by borrowing again, and then again, and then again. For some reason, when it comes to the state and its clients, those elementary moral truths are forgotten.

Scruton concludes that morality is inescapable — though we may delay it, judgment will come.

The moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, for their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour. But I cannot help thinking that the result is at best only a short term economic advantage, and that the long term costs will be all the greater. For what we are seeing, in both Europe andAmerica, is a demoralisation of the economic life. Debts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.

Read the full text here.

In the National Catholic Register, Kathryn Jean Lopez looks at the current debate on Social Security and asks: “So, is it a Ponzi scheme? Is it time to blow it up? Are these questions freaking people out — and missing the point?” Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg is extensively quoted in the article. Here he is explaining how the principle of subsidiarity plays into the debate.

“Integral human development requires us to make free choices and to be assisted in doing so to the extent that we are enabled to do so. That means, for instance, that a Social Security system that sought to provide everyone with everything is highly problematic because it destroys and undermines our ability to make free choices. It reduces us to a state of dependency. That is not integral human development.”

Therein enters subsidiarity, which has become an unnecessarily and unhelpfully loaded term in debates about Catholic social teaching and prudential political decisions.

“The way that CST reconciles everyone’s need to make free choices consistent with their vocation, ability and needs and everyone’s need for some form of assistance is through the principle of subsidiarity,” Gregg explains. “Subsidiarity comes from the Latin subsidium, which means to assist. … [It] thus combines axioms of noninterference and assistance. It follows that when a case of assistance and coordination through law or the government proves necessary, the assisting community should accord as much respect as possible to the rightful autonomy of the assisted person or community. The primary significance of this principle thus lies … in the fact that this autonomy is essential if people are to flourish as persons.”

Read “Stewarding Social Security to a Secure Future” on NCR.

Yesterday Senator Harry Reid finally proposed a budget plan – one week before the United States is set to default. It is about time that Senate Democrats joined President Obama and House Republicans in offering a concrete budget proposal; however, their budget plan passes the buck onto future generations.

The government cannot continue to leave budget woes to future generations, and this is exactly what Senator Reid is trying to do. In fact, after viewing a video found on his website, he seems rather proud of the fact that his budget proposal doesn’t touch the three largest entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—which alone consist of 40 percent of federal spending in 2010 (entitlement spending makes up 57 percent of federal spending). Instead of making the tough call, proposing reforms and cuts to spare future generations from the large financial burden these programs bring, the Senate Democrats are deciding to continue with things as they are. Judging by the current financial state of the U.S. this is rather problematic.

The Senate Democrats’ budget proposal disregards the principles of stewardship. By not cutting or reforming entitlements they are not looking long term to ensure the creation of a strong and stable economy for our children and grandchildren.  Jordan Ballor in his commentary “Do Less with Less: What the History of Federal Debt and Tax Leverages Teaches” offers a pretty common sense solution for Senator Reid:

Raising taxes without such assurances, even for such a critical cause as the public debt crisis, is pure folly. To really address the structural deficits at the heart of the federal budget, particularly with respect to entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (which together accounted for 40 percent of federal spending in 2010), the government simply needs to find ways to do less with less.

Entitlements have greatly contributed to our deficit problem, and a sound budget solution will recognize their contribution to the deficit and look to rectify the situation.

As Samuel Gregg articulates in “Deficit Denial, American-Style” the U.S. must pay off its debt if it hopes to economically grow and flourish:

After examining data on 44 countries over approximately 200 years, two economists recently found evidence suggesting that developed nations with gross public debt levels exceeding 90 percent of GDP (i.e., America) find that their medium-growth rates fall by one percent, while average growth declines by an even greater proportion.

The United States can begin down the path of prosperity by shrinking government and doing less with less and fostering an economic climate that is strong and vibrant for future generations.

Also see the Acton Institute’s  Principles for Budget Reform which can be viewed by clicking here.




Blog author: jmeszaros
Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John Boehner recently stated, in the debt-ceiling talks, that “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” which most Americans agree with in principle.  However, citizens say that keeping benefits the same for the three big programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, is more important than taking steps to reduce the budget deficit by a margin of 60 percent compared to 32 percent for Social Security, 61 compared to 31 percent for Medicare, and 58 compared to 37 percent for Medicaid.

So Americans purportedly want thriftier government, but still want benefits? What gives?  Part of the problem, according to James Kwak, is “the idea that there is one thing called ‘government’–and that you can measure it by looking at total spending–makes no sense.”

What Kwak means is that total expenditure is a misleading measure of the “size” of government. He presents this example:

The number of dollars collected and spent by the government doesn’t tell you how big the government is in any meaningful sense. Most government policies can be accomplished at least three different ways: spending, tax credits, and regulation. For example, let’s say we want to help low-income people afford rental housing. We can pay for housing vouchers; we can provide tax credits to developers to build affordable housing; or we can have a regulation saying that some percentage of new units must be affordably priced. The first increases the amount of cash flowing in and out of the government; the second decreases it; and the third leaves it the same. Yet all increase government’s impact on society.”

So increased spending (or decreasing it) does not necessarily mean the “size” of government has grown (or shrunk). Think how regulation is synonymous with big government, but it does not involve a tax or direct spending of any kind.

In fact, “big” government is often viewed through the lens of regulation, rather than cost. For instance, Kwak explains:

When people say government is too big, they often have in mind something like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–a regulatory agency that tells businesses what they can and can’t do…the CFPA’s budget is about $300 million, or less than one-hundredth of one percent of federal government spending.”

Again the divergence between cost and “bigness” is seen.  The CFPA may be viewed as “big,” intrusive, and unnecessary but it is not large in terms of cost like Social Security and Defense spending.

Kwak states, “popular antipathy toward the regulatory state has been translated into an attack on popular entitlement programs.”  Many people dislike certain government regulations and, due to the budget debate, dislike of regulation, the amount of government spending, and specific government programs may have become accidentally intertwined.

As mentioned before, Americans view Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as important and worth preserving.  Kwak elaborates: “Rationally speaking, your opinion about Social Security or about Medicare should be based on how much you put in and how much you get out–not on the gross size of the program, and not on how big the rest of the federal budget is. Yet instead the total size of the budget has become the driving force behind potential structural changes in Social Security and Medicare.”

Kwak suggests that “we should make decisions on a program-by-program basis, just like a business is supposed to do.”  His advice is: “If there’s a program that the American people, through our democratic system, agree will provide benefits greater than its costs, we should do it, independently of the existing spending level. And if there’s a program that isn’t covering its costs, we should kill it.”

Instead of focusing on a generality, “government size”, our elected officials should evaluate programs on a cost-benefit level.  Then government agencies that are viewed as too costly or intrusive (the CFPA) could be eliminated and government programs that are viewed as beneficial (SS, Medicare), but need reform, can be focused on in an unbiased way and not be harmed by the “too big” generality.

Jordan Ballor, in a blog post for Acton, wrote: “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.”  Indeed, although the American people think Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are beneficial, 52 percent think Social Security needs significant reform, 54 percent think Medicare needs reform, and 54 percent, likewise, for Medicaid.  However, without having a clear definition of what “too big” means, successful retooling will be difficult to achieve.

Ballor added: “This means that the fundamental role of government in the provision of various services must likewise be explored. This requires a return to basics, the first principles of good governance, that does justice to the varieties of governmental entities (local, regional, state, federal) and institutions of civil society (including families, churches, charities, and businesses).”  True reform requires not simply legal and budgetary change, but a reevaluation of what entities perform certain services, as Ballor suggested.

The Acton Institute is committed to real budget reform, and, to make sure that programs, like Social Security, are evaluated fairly and reformed properly, the United States should make sure it clearly defines the costs and benefits of individual programs before taking drastic action.

The Roman philosopher Cicero once said to his son, “You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.” The form this sentiment takes collectively is a good summation of the universal hope for humankind. We want our children in particular, but also the next generation and the world more generally, to be better off than we are.

We want them to surpass us “in all things,” not simply in terms of material wealth, but also with respect to their development as whole human persons, body and soul.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Common Sense Concept at AEI on the current debt crisis facing America, focusing particularly on applying the concept of “intergenerational justice” to the problem. You can view the entire event at the AEI page. A highlight of my comments appears below:

One of the things we talked about during the discussion was the idea of “opportunity” and how it relates to intergenerational justice. Cicero’s sentiment assumes this idea: his son needs to have the opportunity to surpass him, to be better than him “in all things.”

I think of how this applies to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans, not particularly for themselves, but for their children. Consider the people you know or stories you’ve heard about parents who work extra shifts and second, sometimes third, jobs to put away money so that their child can have the opportunity they have never had: to go to college, to get a well-paying, rewarding, and fulfilling job, and to see flourishing on an intergenerational scale.

It reminds me of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that came out a few years ago. This is a story based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner. One of the takeaways from the film version is that so much of what drives Gardner to work harder, to never give up, to continually seek a better life, is that he is doing all this for his son. Lending the portrayal special poignancy, in the film Gardner and his son are played by Will Smith and his own son, Jaden.

A great deal of what we are talking about in this ongoing conversation about the public debt crisis and intergenerational justice centers on this idea of opportunity. Ryan Streeter mentioned it explicitly in our discussion, and Ron Sider’s explication of what the biblical picture of “economic justice” is like could be summed up as focusing on guaranteeing opportunity across generations. In his essay, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” (appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality) the theologian Herman Bavinck describes the Old Testament polity as one in which “the basic necessities for a life of human dignity were made possible for most Israelites.”

The fiscal reality today, however, is that we are rapidly facing a situation in which the coming generations will be constrained from having the opportunity to surpass us because of the profligacy of federal spending, the deleterious commitments to transfer wealth from younger and poorer workers to older and wealthier Americans, and the simply unsustainable levels of spending pursued for decades by politicians.

This is why in the key economic factor to consider in the debates about the ethics of intergenerational justice is that of opportunity cost. As David Henderson writes, the concept’s “virtue is to remind us that the cost of using a resource arises from the value of what it could be used for instead.”

The Social Security system is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard. It is the single largest piece of the federal budget ($695 billion in FY 2010), taking large sections of income out of the checks of working Americans every pay period, that could otherwise be put to a variety of other uses. Depending on the situation, some of these uses might be more immediate and temporary (like food and rent) and others might have longer-term implications (such as investment and savings).

When we ignore opportunity cost and its intergenerational implications, we are constricting the range of options available to current and future generations. We are, in fact, infringing on their rights to liberty and “the pursuit of happiness.”