Our country is in the midst of a clash between two competing moral visions, between those who believe in the common good, and those who believe individual good is the only good. A war has been declared on the poor, and it is a moral imperative that people of faith and conscience fight on the side of the most vulnerable. – Rev. Jim Wallis
I have been reluctant to write about the partisan bickering in Washington over the debt ceiling, if only to resist the urge to become overly cynical about our political process. But it is difficult. President Obama presented Republicans with a “Grand Bargain” that should have been embraced as every conservative’s dream – spending cuts of $4 trillion over ten years, an increase in the age of eligibility for Medicare, and other structural changes to the vast entitlement programs – but House Speaker John Boehner walked away. Boehner walked, I suspect, because he has a metaphorical gun to his head by the anti-tax, Tea Party radicals in Congress. Nevertheless, walk away he did, not because the spending cuts were insufficient, but because they would be achieved, in part, through very modest tax increases and the closing of loopholes on hedge fund managers, corporate jet owners, and companies that move offshore.
There once was a time when the Republicans would have embraced the President’s proposal as an opportunity to limit the size and scope of the federal government while also preventing a default of the nation’s obligations (see Where Have the Moderate Republicans Gone?). Led by the Tea Party, Republican refusal to compromise is a symptom of a much larger problem, a dysfunction in our political process. As David Brooks of The New York Times noted recently, the Republican Party no longer occupies the realm of normalcy, but has instead “been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.” To the Tea Party radicals, compromise is weakness. They are the Hezbollah faction of American politics, suicide bombers willing to destroy themselves to destroy their opposition. Meanwhile the country is collateral damage. “The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise,” Brooks noted, “no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.”
The Democrats in Congress are only slightly better. While the Republicans are acting like children, neither side is taking into account the people who always get left behind in these debates, the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Senator Harry Reid presented an alternative to Obama’s plan that contained deep cuts in spending and no revenue increases, but upon closer scrutiny it involved numerical smoke and mirrors and “fuzzy math” as one former President liked to say. Only the President seems to understand that anyone serious about reducing the debt and deficits must put forth a plan that contains a balance of real spending cuts and tax increases, but he appears unwilling to insist on this. Where is LBJ when you need him?
Where are the statesmen in the Republican Party? Where are the moral voices in the Democratic Party who used to fight for the most vulnerable in our society? Where are the voices of reason, the men and women who believe in the end that the good of the country outweighs partisan ideology? Even Ronald Reagan, the most right-wing President of my lifetime, raised the debt ceiling 18 times and raised taxes eleven times when he occupied the White House in the 1980’s. Were Reagan around today, I suspect the anti-tax mafia of the Republican Party would metaphorically instruct their underlings to “take him to the airport” and have him “swim with the fishes”; he would be politically excommunicated. Reagan knew that the debt ceiling debate was about the country fulfilling its obligations and paying its creditors, not a fight over tax policy and government programs. That is reserved for the budget debates. But the anti-tax fundamentalists are threatening to savage the already flickering economy and the country’s long-term interests to win a political game, to humiliate the President, and to force their ideology onto an American public that yearns only for America’s leaders to act responsibly.
Meanwhile, the nation’s unemployment rate hovers at 9.2%, while the real unemployment rate consisting of those who have given up on finding work and the severely under-employed, exceeds 16.2% of the workforce. Forgotten and ignored in the debt ceiling talks are “the people who come to my church’s front door every day,” writes the Rev. Jennifer Kottler, Associate Pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, in this week’s Sojourners. She talks of the people hurting the most from our current economic structure.
It’s the guy I met last week who is trying to make ends meet with a $300 per week job (in New York City) with three kids and a wife, on parole, and at the end of his rope. He doesn’t need piecemeal charity; he needs an economic system that rewards hard work and allows him to work and provide for his family. He doesn’t want to end up back in prison, but he knows that he might go back to the underground economy so that he can feed his family. It was 104 degrees here last week, and he’s already thinking about his kids needing winter coats and boots and school supplies.
CNN has reported that one in five males in the United States presently fill the ranks of the unemployed. But the anti-tax radicals insist this is the time to shrink government and to let everyone fend for themselves.
What is really at stake, it seems, is a much larger, more crucial debate over the role of government in a good society. How do we maintain the greatness that is America while ensuring that we remain a decent, fair and compassionate country?
We live in a country that values freedom and rugged individualism. Born of a revolution, Americans achieved independence from colonial oppression, expanded westward and made their own way. We developed the frontier, survived a civil war, and won two world wars. Through it all, we allowed our citizens to dream and innovate, compete, and create enormous wealth. We have historically, through the unfettered engines of capitalism, free enterprise, and competition, combined with substantial government support and investment, produced the richest, most productive economy in the world’s history.
But fundamental to our economic system and the free flow of capital is a dark reality, one easily overlooked by the people who most benefit from our economic system. A market-based economy requires a certain level of inequality and unfairness to function efficiently and properly; it demands that some people be left to fend for themselves. A competitive economy, consisting of winners and losers, offers great wealth to some and a long, uphill struggle for others; it is a zero sum game with millions of people left behind. In business, the bottom line is king, a dictator with an army of accountants and financial wizards whose impersonal decisions affect the lives of employees and their families. When times are good, we can be a generous nation, taking care of the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, and the unemployed. But in times of peril, when we experience phases dominated by greed and intolerance, our society begins to look less friendly, less ideal.
Throughout the Twentieth Century, it had been the government’s proper role to narrow the gaps inherent in a profit-driven, market economy; to uplift the poor and to make certain that society remains, if not equal, at least fair and compassionate. Government is needed, in part, to do the things that private enterprise, left to its own devices, cannot or will not do: protect our air and water; ensure a safe food supply; educate our children; build and repair our roads and bridges; protect our country from foreign and domestic threats; enforce our laws fairly and equally; regulate our disputes and maintain a fair judicial system; protect consumers and oversee fair and competitive markets. Following the Great Depression and American victory in World War II, the United States enacted the Employment Act of 1946, which made full employment a national priority, in which it was understood government would play a significant role whenever the private sector fell short. Although we never achieved the ideals of the Great Society, we sought as much as possible a Good Society.
In their zeal to return the United States to a 19th century world where property and privilege dominated, the Tea Party has lost sight of the world in which we actually live. The countries that shape the 21st century will be those most adept at managing the private-public partnership needed to sustain infrastructure, energy sources, scientific and medical research, the environment, and the development and nurturing of human capital. The financial collapse of 2008 that led to the Great Recession, and the rapid advances of technology that continue to eliminate people and jobs, demand reforms of today’s hedge fund capitalism. If the Tea Party insists on imposing a 19th century form of capitalism onto the nation’s economy, it will only accelerate the country’s moral and economic decline.
In the current debate over the debt ceiling, concepts of justice, fairness, decency, and hope have been forfeited to the forces of power politics. The victims are the poor, the middle class, the millions of laid-off and underemployed Americans who have settled into a semi-permanent state of economic depression. Responsible leaders are not those who force a makeshift debt ceiling bill at the midnight hour designed only to delay another fundamental debate and to prevent an economic collapse. Responsible leaders sit down together and find ways to cut spending without damaging our economy and hurting our most vulnerable citizens; they agree on ways to raise new tax revenues to pay down our debt (which merely pays for past expenditures, including the Bush tax cuts and the unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), while maintaining those programs that benefit our people and our economy; and they find ways to maintain a fair and compassionate society, while at the same time reinvigorate economic growth and success.
Budgets are moral documents. They involve choices that reveal the kind of country we are and desire to be. Do we continue to lavish tax cuts on people who make more than $250,000 a year, or do we instead increase the top marginal rates by two percentage points to help fund defense, infrastructure, environmental protection, and food stamps for the elderly poor? Do we really need the new $2 billion fighter jet if it means cutting Head Start and early childhood nutrition programs? Should we allow unlimited mortgage-interest deductions on vacation homes if it means spending less on improvements to our highways and bridges? The answers cannot simply be to cut food stamps, or to stop protecting the environment, or to eliminate Head Start, or to ignore the nation’s transportation systems. The implications of such negligence are too painful; the consequences to the nation’s soul too severe.
It is in these difficult times when the moral fabric of our society is most tested. Anyone who claims that we should cut Medicare, food stamps, and education but will under no circumstances increase taxes, does not have a plan for America’s future. Anyone who believes that millionaire hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners should pay no more while the elderly, the poor, the environment, the nation’s infrastructure, our schools and the sick must do with less, are not serious about leading this nation and solving our problems. I am not yet ready to give up on the American Dream or the hope and vision of a Good Society. And I am willing to pay for it, individually and collectively, through a reasonable, progressive tax system. But if the anti-tax radicals of the Tea Party have their way, America as a nation will have lost its soul.