Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Daniel Suhr, a friend of Mere-O. You can see the whole event video here. Enjoy and discuss responsibly.
When Ron Sider, Gideon Strauss, and other prominent evangelicals issued “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” last month, they sought to set a Biblical/moral framework for upcoming public discourse and decisions about the federal budget. The Call has prompted some interesting conversations about the role of the federal government, the size of the federal deficit and debt, and the policies under considerations to meet this crisis.
One such discussion took place last night at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Ably moderated by friend-of-the-blog Eric Teetsel of AEI’s Project on Values & Capitalism, the event featured the two architects of the Call, two of its signers, and two skeptics. Rather than provide a blow-by-blow account of the action, which you may observe for yourself here, permit your humble correspondent to instead focus on five areas of agreement among the panelists in what seemed at many points like a vigorous though civil debate.
First, everyone on the panel acknowledged that America faces an impending debt crisis that is not only economically disastrous, but “morally reprehensible.” This recognition in itself is valuable and more than we get from some politicians and pundits. Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, began his remarks by saying, “It was urgent for people who were publicly identified as progressive (or at least not conservative) to say clearly and vigorously that the deficit and the ever-increasing debt are a serious crisis and we have got to deal with them. … I wanted to say ‘we’ve got to deal with the deficit.’ It’s not only an economic disaster to continue with what we’re doing but it’s simply immoral for my generation to put on America’s credit card things we’re not willing to pay for.” Similarly, Gideon Strauss, president of the Center for Public Justice and co-architect of the Call with Dr. Sider, noted, “These are hard choices that demand real sacrifices.” Later he reiterated, “We have to make hard choices. We have to make sacrifices.” Finally, Jonathan Merritt, a young Baptist pastor and author who signed the Call: “I think everyone in this room would agree that our spending is out of control and we are in a debt crisis.”
Second, the panel agreed that the government, especially the federal government, is not the primary social institution with responsibility for alleviating poverty. Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute, who “failed to heed the call” to sign, noted that the document focuses exclusively on the role of government in confronting poverty, without any recognition of the role of businesses, social service agencies, and the church. Dr. Sider and Dr. Strauss responded by agreeing with him that other institutions have primary responsibility for fighting poverty. Dr. Strauss: “We are not saying the government is the first agency that is responsible for addressing poverty. … I would argue that the primary agency to generate wealth and relieve poverty is business in a free market economy.” Dr. Sider: ““We’ve been very clear that all of the institutions need to flourish. Civil society is crucial. … On biblical grounds, there is a positive role for government in empowering poor people, though I’m happiest when other institutions do it.” Along similar lines, Jordan noted that the Call jumped right to the responsibility of the federal government to alleviate poverty, ignoring state and local governments. Dr. Strauss responded by acknowledging, “The federal government isn’t necessarily the right level of government always either. Government closest to people may most effectively address poverty. Lower levels of government have higher responsibilities. All that said, the federal government still has a responsibility to address poverty and that must come into budgets.”
Third, everyone agreed that we must insist that government’s anti-poverty programs be effective. It is not moral to waste taxpayer money on a program that is ineffective, and it is not immoral to cut a program that doesn’t work. This point was primarily driven home by Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall: “The measure of success for fighting poverty is not how much we spend, but how many people are leading fully flourishing lives.” The Call itself insisted on “effective” programs, and panelist Ryan Streeter of ConservativeHome.com said he put significant stock in that qualification when he decided to sign the Call. Dr. Sider acknowledged, “Now we should always ask is this working, does it produce good results? Too often we get into name-calling rather than together, left and right, looking at what genuinely works.” Though scholars and policy-makers may often disagree on a prudential level about whether a particular program is effective, it is important to insist that the government must be a wise steward of the funds entrusted to it, and not spend on programs that don’t work. (Jennifer Marshall noted another time when cuts to welfare programs would be moral acceptable, namely when the economic circumstances of the nation change. In a recession, spending on programs like food stamps and unemployment compensation inevitably goes up. When the economy picks back up and people start find work again, it is appropriate to return those programs to pre-recession spending levels, even though this involves “cutting aid to the poor”).
Fourth, the panel agreed generally on the necessity and urgency of entitlement reform. In its text, the Call calls for important changes in Social Security, such as raising the retirement age. Medicare and Medicaid were not addressed directly in the Call. Yet in the discussion, signer Ryan Streeter in particular pushed for means-testing for Social Security and Medicare: “transfer payments to affluent individuals through entitlement problems needs to change” (an argument made often by Marshall’s Heritage colleague Stuart Butler). He found agreement from the other panelists, particularly Marshall (“I agree the safety net should not be one that gives benefits to the wealthy”) and Sider.
Fifth, the panelists agreed that name-calling and demagoguery around these issues are not helpful to solving the challenge facing the nation. Dr. Sider began by saying that his hope for the Call was that it would “increase bipartisan dialogue on a topic that both on moral and economic grounds we simply dare not post-pone for another five to ten years.” Dr. Strauss picked up on a phrase often bandied about by Jim Wallis, that the federal budget is a “moral document,” saying, “Yes, a budget is a moral document, but it is a morally complex document. It cannot simply be reduced to slogans; it demands wisdom in its crafting. Crafting a budget is not a simple matter of good vs. evil, guns vs. butter, or care for the poor vs. care for the future. … What is required is grown-up conversation, negotiation, and not bluster and posture.”
Of course, there were inevitably points of disagreement. Dr. Sider, for instance, called for a cut of $100 billion in defense spending, something unlikely to fly at Heritage or AEI. He also called for about a 50-50 mix between revenue increase and spending decreases to solve the deficit; that would mean $700 billion in tax increases to solve the 2012 Obama budget’s $1.4 trillion deficit. In the Q&A, I questioned Pastor Merritt’s contention that “when it comes down to substantive policies, there’s very little solutions coming from the conservative community,” mentioning school choice and charter schools, inner-city enterprise zones, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation as examples. He responded by saying both the left and the right lacked solutions for poverty, which is why young evangelicals are becoming disenchanted with politics. (Pastor Merritt didn’t once insert himself into the hour-long back-and-forth among the panelists, but he was the target of the first two questions; the other being an excellent inquiry about Millennials’ entitlement attitude). And there were points more or less unaddressed, such as the Call’s paragraph on controlling health care costs (excepting Dr. Sider’s fascinating rift on spending in the last six months of life and the need for honest conversations with seniors about living wills and such).
As Dr. Strauss said, “hard choices” inevitably lie ahead for America’s policy-makers to deal with this broadly-acknowledged debt crisis. The Call’s signers set out, in Dr. Sider’s words, to achieve “broad consensus on basic principles.” Though they may not have realized it at the moment, the panelists last night achieved significant consensus on basic principles as well – many of which may provide starting points for specific policy decisions as the budget process moves forward. As America goes through that process, hopefully we’ll see more conversations like last night’s, focused on moral imperatives and economic realities, not electoral opportunities.
Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney at a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.