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by Christian Stempert
photo: Talinn, the capital of Estonia (credit: picturesphoto.info)

Time and time again, since the beginning of the current economic crisis, politicians and commentators have told us that “a budget is a moral document.”  Just last week Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners asserted in a blog post that we are missing a simple religious principle in our budget debates: budget cuts should effect the wealthy, not those in need.  Rev. Brian McLaren has called budget cuts that affect the impoverished “morally unacceptable.”  We hear it so often because the phrase conveniently works for both sides of the debate.  Conservatives argue that it is immoral for the government to continue spending so much money, and end up foisting an ever-growing public debt onto the next generation of Americans.  Those on the Left argue that we have a moral responsibility to care for those in poverty, to help them both with basic living necessities and to improve their economic situation.

The question the two sides disagree over is, where does the larger moral imperative lie: with the next generation, or with the current poor?  The liberal solution to both the current economic downturn, and the problem of poverty in general, is increased government involvement and spending to “stimulate the economy.”  Given the near complete lack of success of the 2008 stimulus package, one hardly needs to wonder why conservatives aren’t exactly on board with a Stimulus 2.0.  The alternative those on the Right offer is an extensive plan of government spending and program cuts that would place the U.S. on the path to putting our nearly $16 trillion debt and suffering economy in the rear-view mirror.

To see how the conservatives’ plan would work, one must look to eastern Europe.  More specifically, Estonia.  During the economic collapse in 2008, Estonia’s output fell by 18 percent, a huge margin.  As a result, the people called not for more government spending and intervention, but rather, for less.  They cut government programs, lowered government worker salaries, and raised the pension age.  As a result, while most European nations struggled last year, Estonia’s economy grew by 8 percent.  They are the only country that uses the Euro with a budget surplus, and their national debt is just 6 percent of GDP (as opposed to 165 percent in Greece and just over 100 percent in the U.S.).  Thanks to their austerity measures, Estonia now has one of the world’s strongest economies in this tough economic climate.

‘But,’ many on the Left object, ‘austerity does nothing to help those in poverty.’  This is not exactly true.  The whole point of austerity is that it is a long-term solution to our economic problems, not just a short-term fix for those below the poverty line.  However, in the short run, they do speak some truth; austerity measures take away government funding from anti-poverty programs.  One thing that anti-austerity advocates fail to mention, however, is the fact that Americans donate the most money to charity of any nation on the planet.  In fact, Americans give more than twice as much to charity as a percentage of GDP than any other nation on earth, as is shown in this study.  While Estonia did see a slight increase in the poverty rate due to its austerity measures, the people of that country do not donate more than $200 billion to charity on a yearly basis.  The American people do.  These already high numbers are basically guaranteed to go up due to the spending and tax cuts that are associated with the implementation of an austerity plan.  And as the amount of charitable giving increases, the availability of aid to the impoverished will increase; so the concern of those like New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that a decrease in government programs will lead to the starvation of millions of Americans, is simply unfounded.

Our economic situation is not good, but we do have options.  On one hand, there is increased government spending on short-term fixes for the problem of poverty, which comes with many unforeseen and undesirable side-effects.  On the other hand, there is a plan of fiscal discipline that will cut the national debt while allowing ordinary citizens to help each other rather than depending on a heavily bureaucratic system to do so.

In a meeting with President Obama, Rev. Wallis reports that he and a number of other clergy told the president, “Jesus does not say ‘As you have done to the middle class, you have done to me.’ It rather says, ‘As you have done to the least of these you have done to me.’”  The Bible also says that we should give willingly, not “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Corinthians 9:7).  Taxes are by their very definition compulsory. You fulfill a moral duty through personal responsibility and care—not faceless government programs.