The public debate over our deficit and astonishing National Debt is only going to get more heated over the next months. As a priest and not an economist I want to limit my reflections to a few moral considerations involved and what might important to consider as the politics of the issue plays out. But, above all I would like to hear from you as to some of the practical and moral considerations you think should hold sway in this national debate.
In framing this particular post I would like to reference a blog post over at the Faith in Public Life site, a site generally left of center in the political world. It asks the question, “Will the Catholic Bishops Stand up Paul Ryan.” Here are some excerpts:
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the intellectual darling of the Republican Party, has proposed a 2012 budget plan that would end Medicare and Medicaid as we know it. Ryan frames his dismantling of bedrock social safety nets as a “moral imperative” to save us from spiraling debt. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pushing the plan this weekend, callously argues that “we have a safety net in place in this country for people who frankly don’t need one.”
Simply put, seniors and vulnerable families are being used as pawns in an ideological agenda whose end game is nothing less than wiping away the New Deal. Given that Ryan, a Catholic, has claimed the moral high ground, I’m challenging Catholic bishops to…speak out against this draconian proposal…..
Where is this Catholic voice today?
Bishops were influential (and controversial) actors during recent legislative battles over health care reform. They clearly have the stomach for tough political fights. Will they now take on Paul Ryan and a Republican Party pursuing a radical agenda that is antithetical to a Catholic vision of the common good?
The full article is here: Will Catholic Bishops Stand Up to Paul Ryan?
Well, OK, The article is somewhat polemical in tone using words such as callously ideological agenda, draconian, and radical agenda. The post does seem to admit of the existence of spiraling debt, yet its main purpose seems more to be anti-republican than to be proactive in suggesting specific practical solutions or particular budget cuts that are more acceptable.
For the record, Democrats too have had to make hard choices and don’t always get the priorities right. Here in the District of Columbia, an exclusively Democratic City, (there simply ARE no Republicans in City Leadership), the Mayor and certain City Council Members have suggested the total elimination of the Neighborhood Investment Act (an affordable housing and blighted neighborhood redevelopment fund that is funded by a percentage of taxes in targeted areas such as entertainment corridors and the like). At the same time the Washington Convention Center and Sports Authority retains 100% of its budget. This Democrat-dominated city easily finds money to build baseball stadiums, fund waterfront preservation, and do downtown redevelopment, while the poorer neighborhoods are simply being written out of the proposed budget. These are tough economic times, and those of us who support the the Neighborhood Investment Act understand that cuts are going to be necessary. But a total elimination of the fund, while projects enjoyed by relatively wealthy citizens remain fully funded, is hardly having proper priorities. And in all this, there isn’t a Republican in sight.
So, partisan sparring aside, what might be some considerations in the budget tightening that seems inevitable? I can only suggest some and ask your help in completing the list.
1. Let’s admit that overspending is an American problem. The fact is we’ve been doing it for decades. And the problem isn’t just at the Government level. Most people in this country carry a frightening amount of debt: credit cards, home mortgages, auto loans, second mortgages, student loans, equity loans, and did I mention credit cards? Bankruptcy, once considered a disgrace, is now considered a viable financial strategy. Many of us are in, way over the top. Collectively speaking, we just don’t seem very good at curbing our desires and only buying what we can afford. Scripture says, Owe no debt to anyone (Rom 13:8). I will admit that home mortgages and car loans may be a necessary evil, but most other forms of debt are signs that we are living beyond our means.
2. The National Debt is over 14 Trillion Dollars. You want to see something scary, look here: Debt Clock I watched the debt clock for just one minute and watched the debt increase by 1.2 million dollars, in just a minute. Some argue today that this talk of the deficits and debts is just a ginned up crisis. “We’ve been talking about a collapse for decades now and its never happened.” But we’ve never seen anything like this. 14 trillion, and over a million a minute is simply not sustainable. No reasonable person can think this is nothing to worry about. We DO have to get serious about spending, and soon. I am not an economist, but I DO have common sense. We need to get serious. Morally speaking we are stealing from future generations and saddling them with an enormous burden. It isn’t right and we do need to take action to dramatically reduce spending
3. But we seem locked into a dependency/entitlement cycle that is hard to break. It is not just the poor who are dependent. There is a huge amount of corporate welfare. Certain powerful and certain “politically correct” industries receive large subsidies from the government. We pay farmers not to plant, we subsidize things like ethanol, prop up failing industries, rescue banks, and car manufacturers. There may be an argument for cutting over all corporate taxes at times, but why should we be giving certain companies and industries lots of money in grants and subsidies?
We also do silly things like “cash for clunkers” programs, we pay wealthy beach-front home owners to rebuild their homes when they are destroyed by hurricanes, even though it is foolish to build on sand (Matt 7:26), and so forth. Further we subsidize a lot of nice, but not critical things, like symphonies, art museums, performing arts centers, Public Television and the like.
Recently Wolf Trap (a performing Arts Center here in the DC area) sent out pleas for everyone to flood congress with protests that they might loose 30 million in annual funding due to proposed cuts. But why should taxpayers give that sort of money so that fairly wealthy people can bring picnic lunches and a bottle of wine to listen to music on the lawn of Wolf-Trap?
Wolf Trap argues they cannot survive without the money. But how has Wolf Trap, a high class destination performance site, gotten so dependent on the Government? How and why has corporate America become so dependent on subsidies? Why do we pay farmers not to plant? And so on.
Now, everyone involved argues that they need this funding. And so we seem quite locked into a dependency cycle and seem to feel entitled to a living, or at least that our favorite activities and causes be funded. Don’t cut my program, cut the other guy’s program. Don’t raise my taxes, raise his. Hello 14 Trillion.
4. The article above is baiting the Bishops to enter the fray. But it would seem they can only enunciate certain general Catholic principles such as care for the poor, an equitable sharing of the burden of cuts in other areas of the budget, and proper balance between subsidarity and solidarity. I surely know that the genuinely poor should be cared for before things like Wolf Trap or the Washington Convention and Sports Authority. But there are many areas in the budget debate wherein reasonable men and women will differ and I think the bishops ought to be very careful before over addressing the specifics. The temporal order is more the domain of the laity. It is also a true fact that the Catholic faithful are politically divided and that this limits the bishops influence in the public policy debate.
5. I am interested in hearing your concerns and your sense of priorities as the budget battles heart up. I am particularly interested in hearing from you if you are a member of the laity, for the temporal order is especially your area. I would help if blatant political posturing be kept minimal here. Perhaps if we focused more on what areas of the budget should be protected and what areas might be able to be cut or eliminated.
Here are a couple of videos from the Faith in Public Life site mentioned above. The First video has a tone that I consider rather unhelpful in the debate as it seems to appeal to a sort of class-warfare mentality. The second video however I think is more appropriate in its tone for this sort of discussion. As Catholics, in a Church with a wide political spectrum, mutual respect and a careful moderation of our tone is helpful to having an authentic discussion.