The Debt Crisis and Our National Character

A budget is indeed a moral document, reflecting the character of a nation. All of our character qualities are being tested right now. All are pivotal.
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As I write, the doomsday clock ticks toward a first-ever U.S. government default on our fiscal obligations. The overused image for trying to manage the willfully unmanageable -- "like herding cats" -- has rarely seemed more appropriate.

It may be that by the time this column sees the light of day some kind of solution will have been cobbled together. Regardless, here are my reflections on the broader implications of the sorry mess we have been witnessing from Washington.

First point: This is a manufactured crisis. In particular, this is a crisis manufactured by Tea Party Republicans. Never before has the previously routine congressional vote to raise the government's debt ceiling, or borrowing authority, been leveraged to create a political crisis. It helps to remember that the real long-term problem of America's recent unwillingness to balance the budget of our federal government is separable from the manufactured short-term crisis of imposing conditions on raising the debt ceiling.

At one level, though, this has been a brilliant political strategy by the Republicans. They have forced everyone in Washington to debate concrete plans related to getting our fiscal house in order, with apocalyptic fears and an apparently definite time deadline holding everyone's feet to the fire. There can be no denying that the pressure this strategy has created has moved the negotiations far in the direction of their goals. If you hate their goals, you are losing your mind with frustration. But this paragraph is about political strategy, not the substance of their goals.

A key problem appears to be that as of now no one on the Republican side seems able to restrain the anti-government, anti-tax fiscal Puritanism of the freshmen and Tea Party Republicans, especially in the House. Their absolutist posture related to anything that can be construed as a tax increase, as well as their slash-and-burn approach to (selected) areas of the federal budget, appears to be beyond constraint. Some also appear quite willing to test out the apocalypse of what might happen after an Aug. 2 deadline for action. It has been a long while since we have seen anything like this kind of politics.

One could almost see the value of divided government and the mayhem of clashing core convictions -- if somehow, after all the political sausage-making, a decent deal could be struck. Democrats would be forced to cut government spending far beyond what they would ever choose to do if all the power were in their hands; Republicans would be forced to accept some revisions to the tax code that would raise more revenue, something they would never do if they controlled each branch of government. Perhaps we will get there. It sure doesn't look likely as of this writing.

As a Christian, I find myself uneasy with those voices all-too-willing to slash government spending indiscriminately, without regard to human well-being. But I also find myself uneasy with those voices that seem to defend every dollar of existing spending as if we are not $14 trillion in debt.

A recent analysis by Teresa Tritch in the New York Times revealed how we got from Clinton-era government surpluses to the current abyss. We borrowed $1.5 trillion to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, $1.8 trillion to pay for the revenue drain of the Bush tax cuts, $224 billion for TARP and other bailouts, $180 billion for the new Medicare drug benefit, and nearly $2 trillion for anti-recession stimulus spending by both Bush and Obama. Tritch places the total cost of new government policies under Bush at $5 trillion and under Obama at $1.4 trillion.

It would seem that the most appropriate response would be to reverse course as quickly as possible: We need to stop throwing money away in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while we are at it, stop the routine spending of $650 billion on defense. We need to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire. It looks like we need to stop spending trillions to stimulate an economy that doesn't seem to be responding terribly well to this kind of intervention. And we need to contract rather than expand social welfare spending, though this needs to be done with skill and attention to detail.

I have endorsed the balanced "Call for Intergenerational Justice" offered by evangelical leaders Ron Sider and Gideon Strauss. This thoughtful document calls for major cuts in corporate and agricultural subsidies, defense spending and health care costs, while also supporting raising the Social Security retirement age and reforming the tax code. See the full document for more details.

A budget is indeed a moral document, reflecting the character of a nation. One character quality it measures is how a (still) wealthy nation treats its poorest citizens. A second is our capacity to live without the addictive power of dominating the world militarily. A third test is of our willingness to endure shared sacrifice for the common good. And a final question is whether we still have within us the ability to exercise responsibility and self-discipline. All these character qualities are being tested right now. All are pivotal.

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