America Downgraded, and The Fierce Urgency of Debt Now

America Downgraded, and The Fierce Urgency of Debt Now August 6, 2011

I’m tempted to speak as Aragorn did to Frodo at the Prancing Pony in Bree: “Are you frightened?  Not nearly frightened enough.”  And, humanly speaking, I think that Aragorn would have it precisely right.

Some of us have been trying to sound the alarm for a long time now.  Government spending has expanded at a gobsmacking rate, and once-sustainable levels of deficit spending have exploded far beyond sustainable levels.  And while the machinery of government has grown massive and over-fed, to where government employees are generally compensated far better than those in the private sector, Congress has passed one measure after another that makes life harder for the companies that power the private marketplace.

This is not a merely partisan complaint.  Leaders in both parties have treated the private sector as a sort of bottomless piggy bank.  The attitude appears to have been: feel free to impose more and more burdens, more and more restrictions and regulations, because surely the American economy can handle it.  Who are they to be making such obscene and unfair profits, anyway?  And yet, gradually, the gears of that economy began to slow, even as the spending commitments of our government have grown.  It was clear where we were headed: a stagnant economy and a massive debt burden that would only grow worse as we confront the skyrocketing expenses of providing for Baby Boomers in their old age.

To make matters worse, it has not been clear that we have the cultural capital or the political will and resources to accomplish a dramatic change of trajectory.  Can Americans become thrifty again?  Can we become more industrious and creative again?  Can we renew the virtues and values that provided the bedrock of the American free market?  What about our representatives?  Perhaps the most damaging legacy of the debt-ceiling debacle will be the decreased confidence amongst Americans and investors around the world in the American government, its ability to solve problems, and its commitment to getting its fiscal house in order.

And so yesterday Standard and Poor’s downgraded the credit rating of the American government to a AA+.  It appears unlikely, they said, that we would regain a AAA rating for years to come, due to the ratio between our debt and our GDP.

This is a part of why our group of friends formed Christians for a Sustainable Economy.  The political and economic practices of recent years are simply unsustainable.  They will bear us toward catastrophe.  This is not an exaggeration.  In order to be wise stewards of our common resources as a nation, it is morally imperative that we decrease the debt and get our house in order.  In the short term, I believe, the best thing (economically) we can do for the poor and for all Americans is promote job-growth.  In the long term, the best thing we can do is bring our revenues and our spending, our taxes and our entitlement commitments, back into balance.  Unless we are wise stewards now, unless we take responsibility and renew our commitment to sound economic values and practices, we are headed for terrible trouble.

Along these lines, I want to respond to something Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post today, referencing CASE.  After agreeing with some of our points, he writes:

CASE, however, seems to engage in some overreach of its own, asserting that compassion is “best fulfilled through Christian charity and spiritual counseling, not government programs.” If this is an affirmation that religious charities have unique advantages over public bureaucracies, it is noncontroversial. If this is an assertion that charity and counseling can replace public programs that provide school meals, AIDS treatment or health care for the poor, it is dangerously oblivious to the real world. The scale of private efforts is not sufficient to meet the demands of public justice — which gives government an important role.

The first problem with this argument is that Gerson is actually quoting Jordan Sekulow, not the letter from CASE.  So, to claim that “CASE” is “asserting” this is false (Mike is a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance, so I assume it was a simple mistake; I’ve requested a correction and he said they’re looking into it).  Further, the CASE Letter to the President says explicitly, “The government plays an important role, and communities do need the support of social safety nets for those in need.”  So I find no daylight between the view we expressly hold and the view he criticizes us for failing to hold.  But Gerson goes on to write:

The arguments of the Circle [of Protection] and CASE both have merit. But the Circle’s approach is more urgent. Public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt. A political argument giving equal weight to cuts in poverty programs and reductions in entitlement spending is uninformed about the nature of the budget crisis, which is largely a health-entitlement crisis.

To which I would make several points.  First, the Circle of Protection seeks to protect not merely discretionary spending, but entitlement spending as well.  So when we criticize their opposition to cuts, we are speaking not only of discretionary spending but also entitlements.  And second, I wonder how people are feeling about the “urgency” of addressing our debt problem now that global markets are losing so much confidence in the American government that we lost a AAA credit rating we had held for 70 years?

It was never CASE’s main point that we needed to cut anti-poverty spending.  We’re not out to gut programs that truly help people who are truly in need. Of course we’re not.  It’s always been our main point that there is a fierce moral urgency not only to serving the poor right now, but to reducing the debt and wisely stewarding our budgets so that we can continue to serve the poor and serve all Americans well for the long term.  To the extent that we raised concern over anti-poverty issues, it was to make the point that serving the poor and protecting the welfare state are not the same thing, and anyone who reduces the essence of Christian compassion to the Democratic social agenda is clearly not speaking for the whole “faith community.”

For a Christian like myself, there is ultimately another source of comfort and confidence in the face of all this fear.  Yet we have legitimate reason for concern.  We should all be concerned about the culture and the economy we’re handing over, or preparing to hand over, to our children and grandchildren.  Right now, we are effectively stealing from our children to pay our bills.  I don’t want my children to inherit a wasteland economy because my parents’ generation and my generation could not live within their means.  That is a moral issue too.

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