Every once in a while I like to take notes from news articles and columns, to help me think through ideas and topics. The Bible calls us to care for the needy and so perhaps I can do “my little bit” for voicing concern for those in society who are struggling—as I also seek to do “my little bit” in other ways. (I do realize that many of the articles I enjoy come from the Huffington Post, although I’m also focusing on GOP positions, which interest me as one who taught aspects of the party’s history in undergrad classes.)
“God so loved the world,” as the Gospel teaches, but what’s happening in that beloved world at the moment? Big economic issues and the accompanying politics are “what’s happening,” among other things. Steve Thorngate, writing for The Christian Century, laments that there wasn’t serious policy debate in the debt-ceiling negotiations of this past summer. The president wanted to “get to yes,” while the GOP leaders are keen on preventing Obama’s reelection, while Reps. Boehner and Cantor want control of the House republicans. This is, as Thorngate writes, all about “zero-sum electoral politics.” He criticizes the way the mainstream media (for instance, an article in Time that week) conflates policy talks with the trope that leaders should “just compromise.” In reality, there are no liberal extremists parallel to GOP hardliners who refused to budge on raising the debt ceiling and letting Bush-era tax cuts expire for the sake of increased federal revenue. Democrats have already compromised concerning cuts to what the Time article called“cherished entitlement programs like Medicare”, but GOPs will meanwhile (in Thorngate’s words) “feign disappointment when agreeing to cut tax expenditures.” (http://christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-07/compromise-compromise)
Coming from the conservative perspective, David Frum, a CNN columnist and former assistant to President Bush, complains that “[o]nly about one-third of Republicans agree that cutting government spending should be the country’s top priority. Only about one-quarter of Republicans insist the budget be balanced without any tax increases. Yet that one-third and one-quarter have come to dominate my party. That one-third and that one-quarter forced a debt standoff that could have ended in default and a second Great Recession.” Frum offers several ideas. One is to borrow money at less thant 3% interest in order to help people get out of unemployment, because “Unemployment is a more urgent problem than debt.”
He makes other points. Second: “the deficit is a symptom of America’s economic problems, not a cause,” because government spending increased and revenue declines when the economy weekends. Third: “The time to cut is after the economy recovers.” Fourth: “The place to cut is health care, not assistance to the unemployed and poor”; the US, he says, “provide less assistance to the unemployed and the poor than almost any other democracy” and yet health care is more expensive here and with “worse results.” Fifth: he argues that federal income could be increased not by raising tax rates but by, for instance, higher taxes on energy to encourage conservation or eliminating certain deductions (like state and local taxes) from taxable income. Sixth: he argues that the “frenzy of rage and contempt” among Republicans toward Obama “satisfies the emotions of the Republican base” but are undercutting their own good judgment via pinning all the responsibility for our economic problems on Obama. Finally, he worries that some GOP leaders are going to ruin our economic system in order to prove that the system is in trouble. (http://www.cnn.com/2001/OPINION/08/01/frum.debt.republicans/index.html).
Speaking of Obama-hating, I’m honestly not aware that liberalism has ever produced such a cottage industry of angry media; liberal-hating authors fill an entire shelf at my nearby Barnes and Noble, which to me is creepy. One thing that urks me badly is when my churchgoing Christian friends start to sound hate-ful and snarky like some of these authors and broadcasters; aren’t we called to kindness, patience, and compassion, even as we teach and debate? I personally have found only one book (there may be others) that aims to persuade in a more irenic manner: Patrick M. Garry, Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged. New York: Encounter Books, 2010.
There is a lot of talk about taxing the wealthy these days, especially with regard to retaining earlier tax cuts and the need for national debt reduction. I worry that some of the rhetoric give a one-sided picture. In my own little world, I know well-to-do people who are extremely generous, concerned about social issues, and hopeful to improve the common good, and I know of large companies that contribute notably to beneficial efforts. In current discussions of taxes and federal revenue, Charles Hugh Smith, writing at businessinsider.com, notes that we tend to lump the wealthy together. That’s mistaken, he notes: many wealthy people (Steve Jobs is his example) “created value” and benefited millions of people, while other wealthy people (those connected with Countryside and Enron) deserve condemnation.
Smith clarifies some of the issues. Smith cautions that “the debate over tax rates is pointless, because as long as the super-wealthy own the levers of Federal governance and regulation, then they will buy exclusions, loopholes, rebates, subsidies etc. which relieve them of whatever official tax rates have been passed for public consumption/propaganda purposes.” He cites the sociologist G. William Domhoff who distinguishes “the net worth held by households in ‘marketable assets’ such as homes and vehicles and ‘financial wealth.’ Homes and other tangible assets are, in Domhoff’s words, ‘not as readily converted into cash and are more valuable to their owners for use purposes than they are for resale.’ Meanwhile, “[f]inancial wealth such as stocks, bonds and other securities are liquid and therefore easily converted to cash,” and Domhoff calls these “non-home wealth.” Smith cites 2007 statistics that “the bottom 80% of American households held a mere 7% of these financial assets, while the top 1% held 42.7%, the top 5% holds 72% and the top 10% held fully 83%.” I direct people to this interesting article for Smith’s several graphs and analysis. His conclusion:
“Beneath the happy surface of Federal transfers and spending funded by debt, earned incomes for the bottom 95% are falling and wealth is accumulating in the top 1%. (Emphasis in text.) The Federal Reserve’s project of goosing stocks and bonds has greatly enriched the holders of those assets, while doing essentially nothing for the bottom 90% except increasing their government’s debt load.
“It’s painfully obvious that the Federal government and the Fed are the handmaidens of the politically powerful Financial Elites. Why spend your own money on bribes, bread and circuses when you can arrange for the Central State to borrow the money? Why, indeed. ‘Austerity’ is of course a modest reduction in the amount of money borrowed and spread around to keep the masses safely passive, but a few trillion trimmed here and there over a decade won’t change the Great Game.” (http://www.businessinsider.com/made-in-usa-wealth-inequality-2001-7)
Taxes, by their very nature, do impede economic growth by taking money from businesses and consumers. The author of Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan, notes that when government is “doing the things that it is theoretically supposed to be, government spending must be financed by levying taxes, and taxes exert a cost on the economy.” In his opinion “supply-side economics” is a “chimera” because “we cannot cut taxes and have more money to spend on government programs.” Basically if we pay more taxes, we get more government services, and if we pay fewer taxes, the government will have “fewer resources to fight wars, balance the budget, catch terrorists, educate children,” and other traditional government functions. So how do we have strong services and security from our government while also doing things that encourage economic growth? (I wish I knew!)
Another notion in the news is “class warfare.” Two articles I found are worth reading, one is “Classlessness in America: the uses and abuses of an enduring myth,” in The Economist, discusses the reality of class in the wake of Rep. Paul Ryan’s remark about ‘class warfare.” (http://www.economist.com/node/21530100/) Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott’s “Class Warfare?” which argues that although a “millionaire’s tax” does not solve all problems, but that it is a significant way to raise revenue, but President Obama “hasn’t made out [the] moral case to the American people,” and that his critics are wrong to argue that it is not a serious possible solution to our economic struggles. “More and more citizens believe–and rightly so–that we aren’t all in this together, and that there isn’t a level playing field…. Intergenerational income mobility is lower in the United States than in many European countries…The rich get richer, and so do their children, while the great majority struggles. It is the winner-take-all economy, not taxation, that is the moral problem threatening our democracy.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-ackerman/class-warfare_3_b_982888.html)
Yet another article, by Joshua Holland for Alternet, is “The real ‘class war’ in America: Six narratives wealthy elites are using to destroy the nation’s poor.” All his points are worth reading. One of the false narratives he lists is “unemployment benefits have created a ‘nation of slackers.'” He quotes the hard words of Rep. Steve King (R-IA), “The 80 million Americans that are of working age but are simply not in the workforce need to be put to work. We can’t have a nation of slackers… We’ve gotta get this country back to work and get those people out of the slacker rolls and onto the employed rolls.” But Holland points out that America has one of the “stingiest unemployment benefits” among developed countries, and that unemployment benefits are not discouraging people from finding work—because “[t]here are no jobs!” We have nearly 7 million fewer jobs than in 2007, and to that you can add many millions more people who are working part-time and would like a full-time job, so “you get 25.4 million workers vying for 3.2 million full-time job openings. King, comments Holland, takes an assertion that there are millions of people not in the work force, and derives from that the conclusion that they’re all “slackers.” Similarly, Holland argues that food stamps do, indeed, help people and in fact discourage starvation for many people! But the stigma attached to SNAP, perpetuated by critics who equate nutritional assistance with perpetuating instead of helping to curb poverty, causes some people to not seek this assistance despite eligibility. (http://news.salon.com/2011/09/27/wealthy_class_warfare)
In a couple of other “news round-ups” (http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2009/10/christian-love-part-1.html and http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2010/03/not-funny-but-interesting-part-2.html), I thought about the need for conservatives to create a compelling vision for the common good rather than being a “party of No.” Recently, Vice President Joe Biden noted “You’ve got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because [he’s] gay. That’s not reflective of who we are. This is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country.” As the article author noted, too, the “histrionics of a small minority of the GOP debate crowd … continues to present a lasting problem for a Republican Party struggling to come off as inclusive.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/27/biden-on-gop-debate-boo-gay-soldier_n_983263.html)
Unfortunately, the possibility of a positive, inclusive political vision emerging on the national scene seems hopeless right now in the wake of numerous political changes that have arisen over the past fifteen or so years, as discussed in another article, “Why Congress is So Dysfunctional” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/02/congress-dysfunction-long_n_991010.html)
A few weeks ago, an article from Religion News Service indicated that conservative Christian leaders were praiing Governor Rick Perry and his presidential candidacy. Former Focus on the Family leader James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., of Liberty University, and other evangelical leaders supported Perry’s style, policies, and faith. Falwell even admired Perry’s “guts” for suggesting Texas might secede from the Union. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/22/rick-perry-praised-by-evangelicals_n_976674.html)
Still another article author, Karl Giberson, explains some of the background to this (to me lamentable) position of these evangelical leaders. “Widespread rejection of human-induced climate change by evangelical Christians, of the sort we have seen recently from Rich Perry and others, is a bit of a puzzler. There is no obvious reason why evangelical faith commitments should motivate the faithful to reject climate science.” But he comments that “one of the strategies employed most effectively by evangelicals in their crusade against evolution, which does pose real, although soluble, biblical and theological problems, has been to undermine the entire scientific enterprise. If science is a deeply flawed, ideologically driven, philosophically suspect enterprise, then why should anyone care if almost every scientist supports the theory of evolution [and by extension, climate change]?” And the anti-science polemic by, for instance, the Discovery Institute, characterizes science as a kind of left-wing ideology which one can reject. This is very sad, as is the way some evangelical Christians will, nevertheless, become attracted to “faith-friendly” but “indefensible views in many areas: American history (the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation), sexual orientation (you can ‘pray away the gay’), climate change (not happening), evolution (never happened), cosmology (Big Bang is a big joke) and even biblical studies (the bible tells us what is about to happen in the Middle East.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-giberson-phd/evangelicals-and-science_b_975821.html)
Another article, “Rick Perry and Republican Magical Thinking” by Lincoln Mitchell, points out that Perry does “project an image of strength and independence” as well as “a record and some relevant experience while also legitimately presenting himself as a political outsider.” The “magical thinking” part is a fuzziness of some Republicans’ thinking “that cutting taxes can magically solve all economic woes,” as well as the contention “that global warming is a conspiracy by liberal scientists.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lincoln-mitchell/rick-perry-chris-christie_b_983140.html)
Yet another article, by Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group, criticizes Gov. Perry for his combination of belief in God with his determination to cut government programs for the poor. This is interesting not only from a political position but it also speaks to the role of church and government in fostering the social common good. Gov. Perry, like many conservatives, believe the church can care for society’s need better than government programs. Sapp notes that progressives tend to lose this “Church can do it better” argument, which in turn supports the conservative argument that government isn’t supposed to solve all problems. Sapp argues, “What we should be saying is that it doesn’t matter whether the Church could do a better job caring for the poor or not because the Christ isn’t doing it. We wouldn’t need Section 8 housing if we had enough Habitat homes. We wouldn’t need food stamps or school lunches if we had enough soup kitchens. The way to ensure better care for the poor than government can provide is not to hobble government programs but for the Church to make these programs unnecessary.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-sapp/rick-perry-tithing_b_975723.html)
The more I’ve thought about this particular issue, the more I think it’s not a simple either-or. I think that the Tea Party, with its anti-taxation and small-government rhetoric, has raised this issue afresh. But there can be possibilities of government working along side of faith-communities for the common good, and of persons of faith working as citizens and civic leaders in order to serve the common good through government.
Last year, while working on a research project about faith and citizenship (purchasableright now! http://congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDcurriculum.htm), I found an interesting book Doing Justice in Our Cities by Warren R. Copeland, professor of Religion and Director of Urban Studies at Wittenberg University, and also a several-term mayor and civic leader in Springfield, Ohio. He notes that, after he and his wife became the legal guardians of a teenaged girl, people remarked, “You are such good Christian people to take this girl into your home.” But he wonders why people don’t say they’re “good Christian people” because they participate in the public life of their community! “Being legal guardians for a teenager is not significantly less complicated than being a good citizen,” but he wonders “why is the direct relationship of a legal guardian so often seen as more of an act of faith than the principled participation in a community’s public life?” He adds that “Those who have served on the board of a voluntary association know that that can be just as difficult as government,” since voluntary associations, like local government, “shape our communities and understandings of the issues we face” in public life.
Similarly Copeland wonders if people avoid public service because (to use his example) building a house for Habitat for Humanity is somehow more clearly a “good cause” than dealing with local and federal laws about, for instance, housing. During one year of his elected service, Copeland voted to support construction of over 200 housing units for medium- and low-income families via a federal tax credit program. In addition, his city’s public housing authority supports nearly 2000 housing units. In twenty years, he notes, Springfield’s local Habitat chapter constructed forty homes. “Voluntary organizations provide a human touch and often a spiritual dimension that may be missing from government programs. However, we are not about to meet the huge needs of our urban communities through volunteerism.” He also uses the examples of public schools. He notes that people make personal decisions about their children’s education, sometimes by moving to new communities or removing children from public schools, but “[g]enerally this only makes things worse for the vast majority of our children and makes the overall education system less just” Individual and volunteer errors cannot address all the problems of school quality, funding, and so on.
“Both [government and voluntary groups] are essential to a democratic society.” This is, to him, a matter of faith. “I believe that the fundamental values of real freedom and real diversity are essential to the experience of full humanity in our human communities. I believe that the ethical principles of respect for the integrity of other human beings, recognition of the just claims of our neighbors, and concern for the common good deserve our commitment.”
Words to ponder—and to end this little “news round-up”!
1. Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 94, 97.
2. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.