The fiasco that is political negotiations on the debt ceiling boiled over today with both President Obama and Speaker Boehner holding press conferences. The mantra of Boehner, House Republicans generally and the Tea Party more specifically has been “we have a spending problem” and “we cannot afford _________ (insert your favorite social program here).”
In his press conference, even President Obama seems to accept the “we can’t afford” the level of social support we have now premise:
We have agreed to a series of spending cuts that will make the government leaner, meaner, more effective, more efficient, and give taxpayers a greater bang for their buck. That includes defense spending. That includes health spending. It includes some programs that I like very much, and we — be nice to have, but that we can’t afford right now.
Now, is the vote to raise the debt ceiling important? yes, it must happen. And, should we seek to eradicate government waste? OF COURSE. Is a more effective and efficient government for the common good? YES; however, the question of the common good appears to be an afterthought to what House Republicans have determined “we can afford” (or at least any definition of the common good is redefined based upon that). For the moment, I simply want to raise the question: Is it really about what we can afford? Or about what we are CHOOSING to make a priority?
Over at Commonweal, Economist Charles Clark addresses the “Truth Deficit: Four myths about government spending”
Voters deserve to be treated like adults, not children, and this means that politicians shouldn’t say “we can’t” when they really just mean “we don’t want to.” If some members of the House and Senate don’t think the federal government should take care of those who aren’t fully able to take care of themselves—if, say, they believe it’s up to the states or private charity to do this—then let them say so openly instead of presenting their policy preference as a matter of fiscal necessity. Small-government conservatives are now using the national debt as an excuse to cut programs they’ve long wanted to cut, even when the government was running a surplus. When the economy is in good shape, the programs are said to be unnecessary and wasteful: let the thriving private sector take care of whatever problems the public programs were designed to address. And when the economy declines, the same people tell us we can no longer afford such a generous safety net. Whatever ails us, the cure is smaller government.
The biggest economic problems the United States now faces are unemployment, income inequality, and the fact that much of the financial sector still operates like a casino. If the country could solve these problems, the gap between government outlays and government spending would immediately shrink, if not disappear. By instead focusing attention on the country’s debt, politicians are getting it backwards. Contrary to the claim of many leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, there is no reason to think that immediate cuts to government spending will help the economy—or that spending cuts can’t wait until the economy improves. Behind the confusion on these points are four myths about national debt that have somehow become conventional wisdom in Washington and in most of the media.
Instead of trying to cut out segments of the article, I highly recommend a trip to Commonweal.org.
For Christians, the fundamental question is how are we treating the poor and oppressed among us? Thus, Clark concludes:
How do we help the poor and oppressed in a twenty-first-century economy? Policies that promoted social justice in the eighteenth century might not promote it today. Before modern advances in medical knowledge, there was not much need for universal health care. Before people started to live longer lives, there was not much need for social security. Before the development of modern technology, there was little need for government-supported education. Before we allow representatives of the Tea Party to slash government spending on programs for the elderly, the sick, and the unemployed—modern programs that were designed to meet modern needs that neither Adam Smith nor our Founding Fathers could have anticipated—we should demand solid evidence that the richest country in the history of the world really cannot afford to take care of its most vulnerable citizens. We should make sure we are not reducing our commitment to the least of our brethren so that the richest 5 percent can grab an even larger share of the country’s wealth. The urgent danger facing us now is not that America is about to drown in debt, but that discredited, ahistorical economic theories will scare us into abandoning our most important values.
I think that, while I respect Mr. Clark’s desire to assist the poor, his piece misses a few important points due to overgeneralization and perhaps misunderstanding some of the Republican points of view.
A few examples:
The current / planned spending levels about which the Tea Partiers complain would result in massive deficits no matter how much you tax the wealthy ) – in fact, if you took 100% of income from the top 5% for this entire year, and included major corporations in that, you wouldn’t even make a dent in the planned social spending under this administration.
Meanwhile, Mr. Clark’s may not be aware of the plans offered by those like tea partier Paul Ryan, who would offer the following – http://www.roadmap.republicans.budget.house.gov/plan/summary.htm – which seeks fiscal sustainability while protecting the most needy.
Finally, I highly recommend reading these articles by Thomas Sowell, here:
or if he is too libertarian, which he can be at times, then the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson:
on why both sides are at fault – http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-were-in-the-budgetary-soup/2011/07/08/gIQAGc6l7H_story.html
Thanks for your post. And if you are interested in Dr. Clark’s evaluation of Ryan’s path to prosperity – I recommend:
Where he took on that particular document over at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
Dr. Clark is not denying that both Democrats and Republicans are at fault (and badly behaved)- what he is doing is exposing that it is a PHILOSOPHICALLY driven push about the nature of government – not the national debt. And true libertarians (ie. like Ron Paul) would be the first to admit – they simply do not believe the government SHOULD provide these services. What is the end game? Is it about the national debt? Is it about smaller government for the sake of smaller government, because that is de facto always better? As he notes, this mantra has been the dominant push during times of economic boom and downturn – so it can’t simply be “right now we can’t afford it.”
His point is not simply motivated by “desire to help the poor,” but on economic theory and the push for “evidence based economics.” He is denying the ECONOMIC PRESUPPOSITIONS behind the economic argument being made.
Personally, it is amazing that we still prioritize the views of the economists who insisted this mess “simply couldn’t happen” as opposed to those voices spoke out all along. I recommend taking a look at Randall Wray, Joseph Stiglitz, James Gailbraith and for another Catholic economist Chuck Wilber. All have been writing popular op-eds (A particularly good piece by Stiglitz: http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105 )
“[A]nd true libertarians (ie. like Ron Paul) would be the first to admit – they simply do not believe the government SHOULD provide these services.”
I lean that way myself – the Federal government is not empowered to provide these services. I think it is a mistake to label anyone who philosophically opposes the Federal government doing so as a “libertarian”, as that brush is a bit broad.
With that said, after reading through the Vanity Fair article by Stiglitz, I do not see that he is making an economic argument at all. He actually admits in his article first that “Economists are not sure how to fully explain the growing inequality in America” and then goes on to say “But one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way”, without more economic explanation as to why.
(BTW, do you use capital letters to indicate emphasis or to shout? I was informed that my first response to this post lacked charity, and I agreed, so I try to moderate. I assure you I will read your post carefully, and that anger or forcefulness in anything other than argument is not necessary.)
I am also surprised that so many of the economists assume that the government has done nothing for 200 years (as noted in the response to Paul Ryan’s plan) when in fact it has regulated fairly intensely since at least the Great Depression. In fact, Sen. McCain and others were warning that the loose loan policies at Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac (instituted, among other reasons, to help high-risk borrowers to get homes) were dangerous to the housing market, and even attempted regulation to prevent what eventually happened, which was then blocked. See here – http://purplepeoplevote.com/2008/10/03/mccain-2005-reform-fannie-mae-and-freddie-mac/.
Finally, I think these are a couple very good responses to the Vanity Fair article:
In addition, I highly recommend R.R. Reno over at First Things with this excellent article:
Reno makes this excellent point, among many others:
“Preferential option for the poor. A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. Many people living at the bottom of American society have cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and some of the other goodies of consumer culture. But their lives are a mess.”
First, I apologize if my caps were taken as anger or shouting. In particular, when writing a post the website allows me to italicize, underline, and bold….in commenting it doesn’t and so I used caps to provide emphasis. However, in future, I will avoid that as I was not trying to indicate anger – but emphasis to those particular words.
Second, I am not saying that everyone who believes the government should not provide these programs are libertarian full stop. However, I would like to see an honest conversation about what we think the government should and should not do. What is frustrating about the current conversation is that, with Dr. Clark, I believe the crux of the debate is more about the nature of government than about what we can afford. These are 2 very different positions. Ultimately, it is a philosophical and theological debate that comes down to both theological/philosophical anthropology and what one believes the human community is (and from that the purpose of government and definition of the common good).
I thank you for your links – I will take a look at them. However, where the rubber meets the road – I respectfully but vehemently disagree theologically with most of Reno’s post on the preferential option for the poor. While I agree that poverty is a complex situation with economic, moral, cultural, and social aspects to it – I do not agree with his conclusions or analysis. Although, I do not have the time or space here to get into that……perhaps, I will make that the subject off a future post.
As to the question of government involvement/intervention. From my perspective, it is not that they are assuming the government has done nothing for 200 years – but that economists like Clark and Krugman of the NY Times are pointing negatively to the government deregulation that very broadly undid the intense regulation that existed since the Great Depression, of which the sub-prime market and mortgage backed derivatives market are two key examples. And those arguing for serious regulation, at least those I have read, hold both Democrats and Republicans accountable for their support for deregulation and failure to produce current financial regulation with teeth.
“These are 2 very different positions. Ultimately, it is a philosophical and theological debate that comes down to both theological/philosophical anthropology and what one believes the human community is (and from that the purpose of government and definition of the common good).”