Isaiah 10 and the fiscal cliff

Isaiah 10 and the fiscal cliff December 21, 2012

When I read something in the Bible and I think I shouldn’t say anything about it because it might make people mad, God sometimes lets it go. But not this time. He’s been bugging me for two days. I wasn’t going out of my way to mine the Old Testament for social justice texts. I was just reading my Daily Office, trying to stay out of trouble. And then Isaiah 10:1-4 comes along: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.” I’m afraid this prophetic word seems quite apropos in the context of our government’s fiscal cliff standoff right now.

One of the fundamental systemic injustices of any society is that people with power and wealth get the most input into the laws that are made. That’s why the Israelite prophets had to constantly speak up on behalf of the poor. Because there’s no practical political reason to pay any attention to the plight of the poor unless they’re rioting or you want to get a community service photo op. The economic forces that squeeze the poor are generally perfectly legal and there’s usually not much of a sense that they’re unfair, especially in a free market society. If the rent gets too high for somebody who works double-shifts every day at minimum wage, then that’s just an unfortunate circumstance of the market. The minimum wage can’t be raised because then all the jobs would have to go to China, and it’s too much interference in the market for the government to introduce tax policies to incentivize keeping jobs in America. Then when the poor people get desperate, like Jean Valjean, and steal a loaf of bread, they’re the ones who go to jail. Nobody goes to jail for making laws and zoning policies that destroy the lives of people who have no power.

It’s not just that people with power and wealth get to make the laws; they also get to define the boundaries of the popular discourse. For the past thirty years, the fiscal responsibility of the government has been judged exclusively on the side of spending and not on revenue. Nobody called out President Bush when he randomly pushed through a tax cut for the rich. There wasn’t any legitimate reason to do it at the time other than to squander the budget surplus that Clinton had left. In thinking about the issue of government spending, the Joe Six-Packs of our country make a false analogy with household spending. In household budgeting, you have no control over the revenue side, so fiscal responsibility is in fact exclusively a question of spending.

A more accurate analogy for government budgeting would be to say that the federal government is like a judge assessing alimony. What we’ve got right now is analogous to a situation where a dead-beat dad has been paying less than what his ex-wife needs to support herself and her kids, and because she’s struggling as a result, he’s telling the judge that she’s been fiscally irresponsible. It’s an amazingly cynical strategy. Cut taxes to create a deficit; then say that the government is being fiscally irresponsible to pay for Medicaid, food stamps, and so forth, so you cut spending on those programs, and then cut taxes some more to create another deficit that you can blame on irresponsible spending to continue to shrink the government until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub, to use Grover Norquist’s language. This is the open strategy of people like Norquist who have at least half of Congress wrapped around their fingers.

We have about 40 homeless people sleeping at our church right now. Some of them are chronically homeless due to addiction and/or mental illness problems. But this year is  the first time I’ve seen retirees who couldn’t afford housing in our community with whatever pension and social security check they’re receiving despite having their wits completely about them and having put in long careers. We have a lady who seems like she’s in her seventies. She has a very positive attitude even though she was puking her guts out Tuesday night. She talked a little bit about her two grown sons. I wanted to ask where they lived (and how the hell they let their mother get thrown out on the streets), but I thought I should be sensitive to her dignity.

It fills me with God’s wrath to see a situation like that. We’ve got old ladies who are perfectly sane and not addicted to drugs losing their homes, and our Congress won’t raise taxes on people making more than $250,000 because it will harm the “middle class.” (it turns out the House won’t even raise taxes on people making over $1 million!).  I won’t ever make anywhere close to $250,000. Right now, 75% of our population makes less than $90,000 a year. The top 1% of our population has seen an income increase of 275% over the past 30 years compared to 40% for the middle class. I’m sorry but if you make money by selling products to people in a society that’s held together by laws and infrastructure paid for by the government, then you can’t act as if you “built it yourself” and don’t owe anything to your society. And it’s absurd to act as though raising taxes on the uber-rich is going to make them stop investing in companies. What are they going to do? Liquidate all their cash and put in a treasure chest to bury in their backyards?

And don’t pull out the “Well, I’m all for supporting the poor but it should be done privately” card. When I serve in a church where tithing 10% is the norm and not the rare exception, I might entertain that argument. If everyone in my church actually tithed, we would be able to purchase several apartment buildings where we could house our community’s homeless retirees. If our church mirrors the median income for our area, then our median giving is about 1-2%. Our Methodist founder John Wesley would be amazed. He told his people to pay for their necessities each month and give the rest of their money to the poor and God. He said to “save all you can,” but that didn’t mean horde your money and put it in the stock market. It meant to use and repair every tool or piece of clothing you owned until it was absolutely worn out. I recognize Wesley lived in a different time, but in our day, even tithing 10% isn’t a default expectation.

So what does it mean “to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed”? In our free market logic, we think that justice has been done as long as grocery stores aren’t charging a different price for the same banana to two different customers. What if someone is genuinely seeking work and can’t find anything? What if a single mom is working as many hours as she can at minimum wage and there’s not enough money for her kids to eat after the rent and electricity is paid for? Well, that’s just too bad, but it’s not unjust according to the libertarian logic of the Reagan era of the last thirty years. Neither of these people have a right to anything as long as they can’t prove that they’ve been discriminated against or treated inequitably in anything.

But God doesn’t have any respect for our individualist libertarian logic. God expects us to take care of our neighbors. People who are struggling have a right to be taken care of in God’s world. Now it is fair to ask what taking care of someone really means and to seek to avoid creating unhealthy dependencies, but this is a reason to make sure that we’re not making budget cuts that undermine having an adequate pool of social workers to manage poor clients so that decisions aren’t being made frantically by people who are overextended with enormous caseloads. Somebody has to stand up for the poor and make sure their legitimate needs aren’t sacrificed as part of a fiscal deal. The Democrats don’t have to care about the poor because they’ve got them in their pockets electorally, just like the Republicans have the evangelicals in their pockets. This is why evangelicals who care about the poor need to speak up.

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