Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Moral Budgets?

The Prophet Jeremiah

Just got this from Sojourners, a magazine that is probably the nation's leading Christian voice for justice.

It's an editorial about the budget decisions now being made in Congress. More specifically, it's about the severe cuts in services for the poor that legislators may enact as a prelude to passing even more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

I appreciate that some conservative legislators sincerely believe they're helping the poor in the long run by cutting basic services for the poor now and then cutting taxes on investment income for the wealthy so that more jobs will be created.

Folks lobbying for justice have to take economic growth seriously--a stronger economy does normally help poor people along with everybody else. In some situations, lower taxes on the wealthy can help spur economic growth.

But in my mind these kinds of arguments, at this point and in this situation, don't make a whole lot of sense.

The facts are that right now the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of the wealth of the country. Those are "developing world" inequality numbers. And inequality in the US, by virtually every measure, has increased over the past five years.

Taxes on our wealthy are among the lowest in the developed world.

We've been spending massive amounts of money on the war in Iraq.

While I think some conservative legislators are genuinely motivated by concern for the poor, it appears to me that many more are simply following an extreme economic ideology which views tax cuts for the wealthy and cutting "discretionary social spending" as almost magical tools. That's not to say that type of economic thinking doesn't have its merits at certain times and places, because it does. It is to say, however, that this is simply not one of those times in my mind.

And certainly, there are some who believe many of these legislators are simply following the money and paying off the wealthy who pull the strings. From the point of view of human nature that kind of speculation makes sense to me, but I'll leave those conclusions to others.

Well, enough intro. I'll let Sojourners speak for itself. And whether you agree with everything they say, it's nice to hear a Christian voice speak up for the poor in no uncertain terms. If you've got anything to say about Sojourners' editorial go for it in the comments section so we can kick it around. And by all means, if you're moved by what they say, take action.
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"Woe to you legislators of infamous laws...who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan" (Isaiah 10:1-2, Jerusalem Bible).

There are moments in every generation when a society must decide on its real moral principles. This is one of those moments in history: When our legislators put ideology over principle, it is time to sound the trumpets of justice and tell the truth.

In the early hours of the morning before leaving for their Thanksgiving break, the House of Representatives passed a budget bill that cuts $50 billion, including essential services for low-income families. Funding for health care, food stamps, foster care for neglected children, student loans, enforcing child support orders - all fell to the ax. If the House bill prevails, more than 200,000 people will lose food stamps, people already struggling to make ends meet will have to pay more for health care, and low-income students will find it harder to pay for college loans. When they return, the House also plans to pass a tax cut bill benefiting the wealthiest people in America.

Let's be clear. It is a moral disgrace to take food from the mouths of hungry children to increase the luxuries of those feasting at a table overflowing with plenty. There is no moral path our legislators can take to defend a reckless, mean-spirited budget bill that diminishes our compassion. It is dishonest to stake proud claims to deficit reduction when tax cuts for the wealthy that increase the deficit are the next order of business. It is one more example of an absence of morality in our political leadership. "Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss" (Proverbs 22:16).

The religious community has already helped influence the Senate - its version of the budget cut about $35 billion, with virtually no cuts in services to low-income people. The decision to protect low-income families in the Senate was a bipartisan decision - supported by both Republicans and Democrats. The House decision to sacrifice the poor was a victory of the extreme Republican leadership over all the Democrats and moderate Republicans who voted against the harsh and punitive House bill. Congress now faces a stark choice that requires moral clarity and outrage. The differences between the House and Senate bills have to be resolved in a joint conference committee, and the result brought back to each body for a final vote in mid-December. The convictions of the religious community must be brought to bear in these next few weeks - a final bill containing the House cuts that are an assault on poor families and children must not be passed. Budgets are moral documents that reflect our priorities. The choice to cut supports that help people make it day to day in order to pay for tax cuts for those with plenty goes against everything our religious and moral principles teach us. It is a blatant reversal of biblical values. It's time to act.

Contact your legislators Call your senators and representative during their recess and over the next two weeks and demand they refuse to pass a budget cutting services for low-income people.

6 Comments:

Blogger Matthew Pascal said...

This is truth, and I believe that we have a responsibility to take action.

4:19 PM  
Blogger jon said...

There is one issue I take with your argument and the Sojourner's argument, and that is the issue of "inequality".

I seriously disagree with the way that "favoritism" is discussed in the Bible and the way "inequality" is discussed in economic politics. The tax policies and social services policies that we discuss definitely do not favor the rich. Social services give money to the poor, not to the rich. Welfare, food stamps, college loans, housing assistance, free health care - these have always benefitted the poor more than the rich. I have never heard anyone, not even the most extreme republican, propose any legislation that would change that.

On the other side, the rich pay more federal taxes than the poor do. I'm not just talking about total numbers - the effective percentage of their income that they pay in taxes is several times higher than the percentage the poor pay. And that's not just true for income taxes - that's true for all federal taxes.

So I definitely don't see any biased actions against the poor in terms of social services and taxes. They always favor the poor, and I think that to suggest otherwise is misguided.

Now, there are things in the political system that definitely hurt the poor disproportionally, but I rarely hear these things spoken about. Gasoline taxes, cigarette taxes, alcohol taxes, sales tax, lottery - those all have a true regressive effect. But these things happen at the local and state level, not at the federal level. Much of city politics (housing development, road maintenance, highway construction, police deployment) distinctly favors the wealthier parts of towns. But I have yet to hear a consistent liberal outcry against these biases.

The "inequality" that people often cry out against in America is the uneven level of earned income. But I just don't understand how this is naturally bad or clearly unjust. Having uneven income does not mean that the poor are bad off. There are countries that are much more "even" than the US, where the poor are much worse off. I do not think that having an economic system that artificially creates even wealth distributions is a good thing - do we want everyone to suffer equally, or everyone do reap benefits in proportion to what they sow?

(now, there are all sorts of ways in which economic systems can cause benefits to be disproportionally reaped and be truly unequal in opportunity. But the US's welfare and progressive tax policies are not the culprits.)

Now, this completely differs from what I think my responsibility as an individual is. I definitely do not think that I should personally be at a higher economic level than those around me, and so I use my income accordingly. I choose to give in such a way that demolishes my own income in order to help those around me. But that is a moral action because it is a choice - getting taxed at five times the rate of another is no virtue. I think that all Christians should voluntarily choose out of a higher standard of living and share their wealth with all the poor as God has always asked us to. But I believe that forcing the wealth out of the hands of others is not the right way to go about doing that. I rejoice for every person in need who can be taken off the support of the government and instead placed under the support of their church.

6:07 PM  
Blogger anhomily said...

But when you say that inequality doesn't play a part, you are assuming that there is no inherent inequality in the system which allows the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor. You assume that the rich are earning their riches honestly. And maybe they think that they are, but in reality they are selling the sweat of the poor. In reality they are creating an economic model which distances them from the economic injustices which they participate in. We set up false dichotomies of supply and demand, price and quality, which don't account for factors of equality, fair wages, and the environment. Given that the richest benefit disproportionately from this system (a fact that is so obvious that "not even the most extreme republican [would] propose any legislation that would change that." as you said yourself). But when the whole system their riches is built on this inequality, their wealth increases exponentially. So to tax the rich additional amounts, or even multiplicatively more is not reflective of the reality of inequaltities in the economic system. Furthermore it is shameful to suggest that the taxing of certain vices, and excesses is disproportionately unjust to the poor. In sum to isolate one part of a system, which in its entirety oppresses, robs, and refuses the poor, and to highlight how this one part helps them a bit, misses the glaring fact of how this is just throwing a proverbial crumb. Jesus' command "When you give to the needy, do not your left hand know what your right hand is doing" does not apply when your left hand is stealing, and your right hand is giving pennies.

3:58 AM  
Blogger wordcat said...

very interesting comments. My computer got nailed with some nasty spyware at the end of last week and I just got it back up and running again and so far I can't create new posts on blogger--hope to have it resolved quickly. I'll write a follow-up post and address some of the issues you're raising. I'd like to get at some of the assumptions underlying disagreements on these issues of inequality.

12:30 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"You assume that the rich are earning their riches honestly. And maybe they think that they are, but in reality they are selling the sweat of the poor."

I didn't make that assumption. I specifically said that "there are all sorts of ways in which economic systems can cause benefits to be disproportionally reaped and be truly unequal in opportunity." My point was that these specific injustices need to be attacked - we can't just assume that every part of the system is unjust because the outcome is not what we want.


"Given that the richest benefit disproportionately from this system (a fact that is so obvious that 'not even the most extreme republican [would] propose any legislation that would change that.' as you said yourself)."

The fact that Republicans have never proposed eliminating social services for the poor in no way proves that the rich benefit disproportionally from the system. Use your own arguments, but don't take my words out of context and imply that they support yours.


"Furthermore it is shameful to suggest that the taxing of certain vices, and excesses is disproportionately unjust to the poor."

How is that shameful at all? My exact statement was that: "Gasoline taxes, cigarette taxes, alcohol taxes, sales tax, lottery - those all have a true regressive effect." That is word-for-word true.


"In sum to isolate one part of a system, which in its entirety oppresses, robs, and refuses the poor, and to highlight how this one part helps them a bit, misses the glaring fact of how this is just throwing a proverbial crumb. Jesus' command 'When you give to the needy, do not your left hand know what your right hand is doing' does not apply when your left hand is stealing, and your right hand is giving pennies."

I really don't see how I am the one who isolated one part of a system. My comment was limited to taxes and social services by the original post, not any artificial limiting that I did.

My comment made the following points:

a) There are many injustices in our system that need to be addressed.
b) While our tax system and social services may certainly not be ideal, there is nothing in them that I can see being called Biblically "unjust".
c) We have an enormous Biblical responsibility to choose to give and support the poor by all the means we personally have.

I think that your characterization of my comments was quite unfair, and neither my words nor my actions resemble "throwing the poor a proverbial crumb".

8:02 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

This is emotional stuff for folks who are informed and passionate. All to the good.

Hang in their guys. I wish there were more folks who were willing to engage like both of you do.

It's hard to represent our deepest thinking and the emotions of our hearts and our intuitive understanding in words.

I'm glad you're both giving it your best shot. It's encouraging to me.

9:31 PM  

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