In my 2009 commentary addressing the nation’s debt crisis I included words from Admiral James B. Stockdale. The full quote comes from an essay on public virtue from the book Thoughts of A Philosophical Fighter Pilot. In his 1988 publication, Stockdale declared:

Those who study the rise and fall of civilizations learn that no shortcoming has been surely fatal to republics as a dearth of public virtue, the unwillingness of those who govern to place the value of their society above personal interest. Yet today we read outcries from conscientious congressman disenchanted with the proceedings of their legislative body and totally disgusted with the log-jamming effect of their peers’ selfish and artful distancing of themselves from critical spending cutbacks, much needed belt-tightening legislation without which the long-term existence of our republic itself is endangered.

The religious left, on cue, descended to the temple of irresponsible spending to circle the sacred debt wagons. I’ve already addressed the problems of baptizing Christ into the big government for the poor mantra. Just to briefly add to that, we have a $1.5 trillion deficit this year alone. Our total national debt is just over $14.5 trillion. The annual federal budget was $1.86 trillion in 2001. This year the budget is estimated to end up at $3.82 trillion. For the mathematically challenged prophets circling Washington, that number has more than doubled in one decade.

Is robbing our citizenry and its future inhabitants of opportunity the best we can do for the poor and for the common good? Is the crumbling failed experiment of government as overseer and caretaker the best the nation has to offer those who are marginalized and need help? Because if the answer is feeding a government that has grossly mismanaged all the income it collects by continually extending its credit limit then we suffer from the poverty of sense and ideas.

If it is not the answer, then unfortunately some clerics in Washington are using the poor as pawns or calves in their temple sacrifice to protect their ideological god who needs another “revenue” boost before it comes crashing down like a toddler after a sugar high. The fact that so many religious leaders are stoked up about necessary budget cuts only serves as a reminder of just how big, bloated, and politically useful big government has become.

Does the Circle of Protection  actually help the poor? What may be surprising to many of those who are advocating for the protection of just about any welfare program is that these may not alleviate poverty but only redistribute wealth. Rev. Sirico explained in an interview  with the National Catholic Register how the discussion should be about wealth creation, not wealth redistribution:

Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank based in Grand Rapids, Mich., suggested the Christian activists may not be aware “of the root causes of poverty and wealth.”

“Their statements are all about redistribution of wealth with almost nothing about wealth creation through production and labor,” he said.

Rev. Sirico later articulates that the issue isn’t simply about whether we should care for the poor and vulnerable, but more to point how we should care for the poor and vulnerable. What may surprise the Circle of Protection activists is the programs they seek to protect trap the poor in poverty instead of lifting them out:

“Any Christian would agree that we should put the poor and vulnerable first. The question is how,” noted Father Sirico.

He argued that taxes on the middle class destroyed its ability to grow the economy and to generate surpluses that can be used to assist the poor or to create new jobs.

“Redistributing wealth is the way to keep the poor in poverty. The way to lift them out of poverty is with jobs,” said Father Sirico, who added that he did not mean government jobs, but rather jobs generated through wealth creation in the private sector.

Click here to read the entire article.

From the “What Would Jesus Cut” campaign to the Circle of Protection, Jim Wallis’s liberal activism rooted in his “religious witness” has grabbed headlines across the nation . Wallis advocates for the “protection” of the poor and vulnerable by pushing for expansive government welfare programs.  However, has Wallis effectively analyzed all of the programs for efficiency before advocating for their preservation?

In the National Review Online, Rev. Sirico raises many concerns about the Circle of Protection campaign underway by Wallis and his supporters :

The Circle of Protection, led by Jim Wallis and his George Soros-funded Sojourners group, is advancing a false narrative based on vague threats to the “most vulnerable” if we finally take the first tentative steps to fix our grave budget and debt problems. For example, Wallis frequently cites cuts to federal food programs as portending dire consequences to “hungry and poor people.”

Which programs? He must have missed the General Accountability Office study on government waste released this spring, which looked at, among others, 18 federal food programs. These programs accounted for $62.5 billion in spending in 2008 for food and nutrition assistance. But only seven of the programs have actually been evaluated for effectiveness. Apparently it is enough to simply launch a government program, and the bureaucracy to sustain it, to get the Circle of Protection activists to sanctify it without end. Never mind that it might not be a good use of taxpayer dollars.

As Sirico articulates, Wallis’s agenda is politically based, which needs to be remembered when listening to his arguments:

The actions of Wallis and the co-signers of the Circle of Protection are only understandable in light of political, not primarily religious, aims. Wallis, after all, has been serving as self-appointed chaplain to the Democratic National Committee and recently met with administration officials to help them craft faith-friendly talking points for the 2012 election. And when Wallis emerged from that White House meeting, he crowed that “almost every pulpit in America is linked to the Circle of Protection … so it would be a powerful thing if our pulpits could be linked to the bully pulpit here.”

Think about that for a moment. Imagine if a pastor had emerged from a meeting with President George W. Bush and made the same statement. I can just imagine the howls of “Theocracy!” and “Christian dominionism!” that would echo from the mobs of Birkenstock-shod, tie-dyed, and graying church activists who would immediately assemble at the White House fence to protest such a blurring of Church and State.

But in the moral calculus of Jim Wallis and his Circle of Protection supporters, there’s no problem with prostrating yourself, your Church, and your aid organization before Caesar. As long as he’s on your side of the partisan divide.

Read the full article by clicking here.

Here’s the piece I contributed to today’s Acton News & Commentary:

Fertile Ground for Farm Subsidy Cuts

By Elise Amyx

With debt and budget negotiations in gridlock, and a growing consensus that federal spending at current levels is unsustainable, political support for farm subsidies is waning fast. What’s more, high crop prices and clear injustices are building bipartisan support for significantly cutting agricultural subsidies in the 2012 Farm Bill.

The New Deal introduced an enormous number of agriculture subsidy programs paved with good intentions to help struggling farmers, create a stable food market and alleviate poverty. While many other industries have been deregulated since the Depression-era reforms, agricultural subsidies have grown. Now considered by some to be America’s largest corporate welfare program, it is obvious that the government has failed to meet its original goals.

The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral. Subsidies reward large commercial enterprises — in good times and bad — and shut out small farmers. Developing countries that desperately need to boost agricultural exports cannot compete with subsidized, over-produced crops from wealthy nations. Subsidies also drive up the cost of food for the poor and working families.

Iowa farmer Mark W. Leonard, in a 2006 Wall Street Journal interview, described how he brought a farmer from Mali to talk to local church gatherings about the adverse effects of subsidies. “From a Christian standpoint, what it is doing to Africa tugs at your heartstrings,” he said. The bottom line is that the large, commercial farmers win and everyone else loses.

Rural communities dependent on farming seem to have the long end of the stick, but this isn’t true. According to an Iowa State University study, the most highly subsidized areas in the United States are seeing little to no economic growth. In counties where farm payments are the biggest share of income, job creation is very weak. This can possibly be attributed to highly subsidized agribusiness buy outs of family farms. It is ironic that farm payments are intended to foster growth but instead they appear to be linked with subpar economic performance.

Though meant to support the incomes of farmers and promote rural economic growth, subsidies are making rich farmers richer. Subsidies don’t usually end up where they are most needed because the top 10 percent of recipients receives 74 percent of the payments. Instead of helping those most in need, farm payments are just another failed government welfare program.

Agricultural subsidy programs are funded by taxpayers’ dollars and end up raising the cost of food for the domestic consumer. In other words, we are paying for subsidies twice over. Even though price supports are intended to stabilize food production and thus prevent wild price swings, a Heritage Foundation research report found that consumers actually end up spending more on food in the long run when all price distorting effects are considered. Commodity subsidies encourage overproduction and lower prices, but the Conservation Reserve Program encourages underproduction and raises prices. Tariffs raise the price of imported food. For example, the sugar program operates as a cartel by controlling prices and limiting imports, which significantly raises the cost of sugar.

It is poor budgetary stewardship on the government’s behalf to fund a program with taxpayer dollars that makes food more expensive for consumers. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates the average household spent “$216 in annual taxes in addition to $104 in higher food prices.”

Subsidy payments are commodity specific, so unless you’re growing corn, wheat, soybeans, or another subsidized crop, you’re on your own. Jack Thurston, co-founder of FarmSubsidy.org told Time Business, “The bigger you are, the more subsidies you get. It is the reverse of what you think a subsidy is.”

Because farm payments often encourage overproduction and consolidation of agribusinesses, the price of land is inflated, which makes it very difficult for would-be farmers to enter the market. Rather than giving them a fair opportunity, subsidies undermine the entrepreneurial spirit of young domestic farmers.

Commodity price supports, export subsidies and tariffs drive commodity prices below the world price, which makes it difficult for foreign countries to compete. Surpluses of overproduced U.S. crops are dumped on the international market at prices well below the cost of production, creating even more price volatility. Many poor nations have few other options outside of subsistence farming. Subsidies keep poor nations poor and dependent on developed countries.

There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty — and so are many other successful industries that do not receive any government hand outs. Farmers receiving payments should be careful not to view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.

A farmer from Mississippi by the name of Lanier, in a recent call in to NPR, said he doesn’t need the government to help him run his business: “I’m not going to be very popular with this comment, but my family has farmed [6,000] to 8,000 acres every year. We own about five of that and lease the rest depending on what we think the market conditions will be. But, quite frankly, we don’t need these subsidies … we being the larger farmers; we’re getting paid seven digits to not farm areas of our farm. That’s ludicrous. […] We cry, hey, it’s a risk. But tell me what business there is out there that doesn’t have a risk.”

Agricultural subsidies make little economic sense and they display many of the problems that characterize other large welfare programs: injustice, dependency and a slew of unintended consequences.

But, good news might be just around the corner. Recent reports suggest agricultural subsidies will see drastic cuts in the upcoming farm bill due to high commodity prices and the budget crisis. Americans should be cautiously optimistic that America’s largest corporate welfare program will take a big hit in 2012.

Rev. Sirico was interviewed by Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online on the national debt of the United States, the debt ceiling, and the moral issues of the budget debate. Their discussion spanned from how a prudent, discerning legislator should look at the debt-ceiling debate to the mind set needed when considering spending cuts:

LOPEZ: So many spending cuts can be spun, some perhaps legitimately so, as mean (and liberal policymakers and activists — many with the best of intentions — are all too happy to spin them). How should we be thinking of such things? Does it require a change in thinking?

SIRICO: The question should be right-or-wrong, prudent-or-imprudent, not mean-or-nice. Religious leaders bring their principles into the political debate, but the application of those principles is a prudential question, not an emotional one. It’s also an opportunity for us to reflect upon what governments really need to do, and what is more appropriately done by non-state entities — and I’m not talking about the ones (such as many religiously associated charities and relief agencies) that receive the bulk of their funding from various federal-government contracts.

Yes, a change of thinking is required. If cuts are to be made, then Americans cannot operate under the mentality that “it is acceptable to cut government programs as long as it isn’t government programs that I benefit from.” The core problem is that few are eager to take the pain now. If we don’t, the pain will be much more unbearable down the road. Consider how we got into this situation in the first place.

In the end, reining in spending will protect programs that aid those truly in need, and provide the space for non-state and non-government-funded agencies to undertake much-needed work — that is, to secure the entire infrastructure that makes prosperity possible. That not only creates the grounds for economic flourishing, but preserves human dignity.

Click here to read the full interview.

We live in the information age, or more accurately referred to as the age of “information overload.” Anyone who has a Twitter account knows what I’m talking about. You may feel like you’re drowning in a flood of Facebook statuses, emails and YouTube videos. With information coming at us every which way, how can we process it all? How do we even know it’s true?

Neoclassical economics assumes people act on the basis of perfect information. With all the information that’s out there, this might seem like a good assumption. Dr. Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, does not agree with this theory. In his critique of neoclassical economics at Acton University, he said,

Perfect ignorance is a better starting assumption than perfect information.

Rather than perfect information, perhaps we only need “good enough” information. Economist Vernon Smith claims markets converge toward equilibrium by trial and error. Experiments outlined in his book Rationality in Economics show equilibrium can be reached with a limited amount of information. Similarly, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek argues that prices are sufficient in signaling value and enabling efficient economic decision making.

An experiment conducted by Paul Andreassen in the late 1980s tested two groups of MIT business students to see how information affects stock investments. One group could only see changes in prices while the second group was allowed to read The Wall Street Journal, watch CNBC and consult experts on market trends. Unexpectedly, the group with less information earned twice as much as the well informed group. His analysis suggests the high-informed group was distracted by the rumors and insider gossip from the extra information. The excess information encouraged them to engage in much more buying and selling than the low-informed group because they were confident their knowledge allowed them to operate more efficiently in the market. In this case, price signals and the invisible hand of the market proved more efficient than an overload of information.

In a world that seems to have all the technology and science to answer life’s greatest questions, we realize it is still imperfect and demand more. For example, many believe that overwhelming forensic evidence was enough to convict Casey Anthony of the murder of her daughter Caylee, but the verdict proved otherwise. The jury demanded more than just DNA; they wanted the exact time of death and a stronger motive.  

Information is a necessary prerequisite for belief, but we must be careful not to fall into the trap of doubting Thomas (though we have all been there). Always demanding personal evidence and more proof in order to believe something will only lead to skepticism. A skeptic says he will only believe it if he sees it, but rarely do we ever experience information from a primary source. Should we believe the facts we read in our textbooks? Should we believe what the experts say on the news? Belief always takes a step of faith.

In his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II asks,

Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.

In the age of technology and information overload, we should be humbled in our human limitations. Because information is imperfect, it takes a little faith in the invisible hand to reach equilibrium in the free market. But we should not center our faith in free markets because markets are imperfect and will fail as everything else in the world. Information, which is necessarily imperfect, and faith is required in the human pursuit of truth. Whoever knew markets could teach us so much about faith?

In the discussion of whether the problem with our national public debt is a question of receipts, outlays, or both, I linked to a helpful set of graphs from Anthony Davies, an economics professor at Duquesne University. This data shows that even though a variety of tax rates have changed a great deal over the years, the federal government has basically taken in receipts within the range of 16-20% of GDP over the post-WWII era. If you haven’t looked at this presentation before, you should do so now.

And today, Grove City economics professor and AU faculty lecturer Shawn Ritenour links to another chart, which compares these receipts against historic federal outlays (or spending). He notes (and refutes) Joe Weisenthal’s contention that “any politician who says Washington has a spending problem, rather than a revenue problem, is speaking from a position of anti-tax ideology, rather than empirical data.”

But I think if you look at the history of receipts and outlays a bit closer, you’ll see that the variance in receipts over the last decade are well within the historical norms. But the variance in outlays over that period isn’t outside the norms, either, in the sense that it continues a disturbing trend after 1970. (The data for current and future years is estimated and gleaned from sources here.)
There used to be some correlation between the red and blue lines. But not in today’s Washington.
Again, given this historic perspective, I think it’s hard to blame the blue line for the current debt levels. Keep in mind too that since these figures are a function of GDP, as the economy grows, other things being equal so too does the spending and receipts of the federal government.

In addition to the larger versions of the graphs clickable above, you can download this set of graphs in PDF form here, and visit our “Principles for Budget Reform” page to read more related commentary.

The question of “What Would Jesus Cut” raised in new ads for John Boehner’s, Harry Reid’s, and Mitch McConnell’s home states is fundamentally wrongheaded. It reverses the proper approach of religious leaders to politics and threatens to mislead their flocks.

The PowerBlog has already addressed the Left’s inclination toward class warfare rhetoric during the debt ceiling debate. Much to our surprise, President Obama didn’t seem to have read that post in time to include its insights in Monday night’s speech. Instead, we heard the same disheartening lines about corporate jets and big oil: the president doubled-down on his jealousy-inducement strategy and continued to ignore economic reality.

The country’s religious leaders who have begun to parrot this class warfare language are failing an even greater responsibility than the President’s. It is good that they enter into the debate, but as we explained last week with reference to Archbishop Charles Chaput, religion must always guide political engagement, not the other way around. Evangelization is the necessary and proper motivation of political speech by a religious leader. To reverse this engagement—to turn to religion secondarily, as a means to solving political ends—is to court error.

Aristotle writes his Nicomachean Ethics first, and then his Politics, for precisely this reason. Ethical inquiry (and metaphysical before it) must precede and direct political inquiry. To reverse that order is essentially to justify means by ends.

Father Sirico addressed the WWJC question in April, during Wisconsin’s showdown with its public sector unions. On the Paul Edwards Program he explained the invalidity of Sojourner’s WWJC approach:

I have a very difficult time taking a question like that seriously. It politicizes the gospel: it reduces the gospel—the mission of Jesus Christ—to a question of budget priorities…. It really attenuates the whole thrust of what the gospel is.

The very name the group behind the ads has chosen for itself, the Circle of Protection, is reflective of their misunderstanding. Rather than venturing into the political realm driven by an evangelical spirit, they circle the wagons around a particular policy and use Christianity as a shield.

None of this is to say that the practical solutions advanced by the Circle of Protection are necessarily wrong—only that if the group is right, it has stumbled upon the best policies without the enlightenment of Christianity that it claims.

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.

 

 

 

The film Lt. Dan Band for the Common Good kicks off with the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Honor to him, who braves for the common good.” The words are appropriate. In 2003, wanting to do even more for America’s service men and women, Gary Sinise formed the Lt. Dan Jam Band. The band name was easily decided because many soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen did not know Sinise by name and just called him “Lt. Dan.” The moniker is based on his well known portrayal of an Army lieutenant who lost his legs in Vietnam in the Hollywood film Forrest Gump.

Sinise likes to joke that expectations are low because the band leader is an actor, but in truth the band is made up of professional musicians. Director Jonathan Flora followed the band all over the world for two years as it performed for America’s military and charitable organizations that support the military.

The filmmakers focused a lot of the attention on all the band members and their commitment to those sacrificing for the nation. One touching scene comes on a bus when somebody off camera mentions that Sinise is a hero to the military and the moment leaves him visibly emotional. The film also includes interviews from Sinise’s wife and children and they share how much they miss having Sinise at home but are fully supportive and proud of his service.

Sinise, who was awarded a Presidential Citizen Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008, said in the film that after he started hearing casualty reports in the War on Terror, now almost ten years old, he had to do something. A 2008 Washington Times piece traces much of Sinise’s work with the military and the love and affection they have for him. Also quoted in the article is Deb Rickert of Operation Support our Troops. Rickert declared of Sinise:

In an age when the public often lavishes epitaphs of greatness on celebrities merely because they are famous, the military community bestows the simple title of friend on Gary Sinise truly because that is what he is to us.

While Sinise and the band members are visibly central in the film, many of the stories, tributes, and attention are reserved for the men and women in uniform and the first responders at Ground Zero on 9/11. Gripping testimonials are woven throughout the documentary, especially from family members of those who are deployed overseas in a war zone. An example of notable figures who offer words during the film include film actor Robert Duvall and American hero Colonel Bud Day, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Most importantly, Lt. Dan Ban for the Common Good is simply a powerful reminder of what one can do when gifts and talents are put in service of others. Sinise is a natural because his heart and his authenticity shines. The director does a fine job of pointing out what is already widely known among the military and their families, that Sinise is known as somebody who genuinely cares about their service and circumstances and is not hanging around for a photo-op.

St. Ephraem declared, “Blessed is the soul that is adorned with charity.” For those who wear the military uniform Gary Sinise is affectionately known simply as “Lt. Dan.” But many others have rightly noted that he is the Bob Hope of this generation. Hope was the face of USO tours and he entertained service members for half a century. It is a serious comparison and if America’s military has anything to say about it, a deserving one.