The political problem: policy trumps people

The political problem: policy trumps people October 14, 2011

I posted this picture on my Facebook account recently and oh my!  People do feel strongly about Wall Street, and the Wall Street occupiers, about personal responsibility, government incompetence, and who’s to blame for the mess we’re in.  My friends fall broadly into two camps:

BLAME THE GOVERNMENT. We’re in this mess because the banking system is greedy and corrupt, and the government is either: a) spending too much; b) beholden to special interest groups; c) in bed with a global economy that is unsustainable at every level and ultimately isn’t delivering on it’s promise to make the world a richer, better place; d) all of the above.

Of course, these people were understandably upset by the picture I posted because they think that the draconian Tea Party slashing is ultimately unfair to the majority, and that push to de-regulate the banking industry will only create more oppression and widen the already gaping chasm that exists between the wealthy minority and the rest of us.

PEOPLE ARE TO BLAME. That’s what the guy who made this poster clearly thinks. He’s saying that we’ve been living off of bubbles for at least 30 years.  He’s saying that people bought houses on speculation, knowing they could do zero down, “flip them” and make a killing.  Of course, it was all a giant pyramid scheme, and he’s saying “people never learn.”  They’re trying to make a quick buck, and when it failed, they want to the blame the government.  He’s saying that hard work, living within your means, and saving a bit along the way will enable you to rise above the current malaise.  We don’t all need 55-inch flat screen TVs.  We don’t need to replace our iPad with an iPad 2, because “that first one is too heavy.”   And he’s saying that people who expect the government to protect them from their own greed, or laziness, need to wake up and smell the coffee.  They need to take responsibility for their situations, put down their protest signs, and get a job, even if it pays minimum wage, and get on with living.

“Hurrah” say all the red people, as they read this person’s impassioned plea for personal responsibility.  They all hope that if a new president comes into power, he’ll dismantle the so called “socialist programs” even more, forcing people to take responsibility for themselves.  They like this man and his sign.

WHO’S RIGHT?  The answer to that question reveals the inherent limitations to politic as we know it because the answer is honestly, “it all depends…”   It’s criminal that more corruption wasn’t prosecuted throughout the mortgage crisis, especially since the FBI warned of this as early as 2004.  But of course, the guilty parties weren’t just banks and obscurely packaged derivatives.  Like drug dealers, they’re only responding to the market of personal greed that drove the whole entire mess.  So don’t just blame the banks.

On the other hand, the notion that everyone can just get educated, get a job, and get on with life, rising above the present crisis, is naive at best, and intentional self-deception at the worst.  As one who’s spent some time living with people in poverty I know that the reasons are myriad:  domestic violence, mental illness, broken family situations.  And did you know that nearly half of the foreclosures are rooted in a health care crisis because we, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, spend more than any other nation on health care, and deliver a quality that’s among the worst in the developed world.   The person holding this sign doesn’t mention mental illness, physical abuse, rape, or cancer treatments that cost $300k, wiping out a lifetime of savings in a few weeks time because that person has sent out 300 resumes, but still can’t find a job after being downsized.

SUMMARY:  The left blames the system. The right blames the individual. The real answer is never that easy.  Where needed, people need to be called to personal responsibility and held accountable for their inaction or destructive actions, rather than enabling such to continue through subsidizing unhealthy behavior.  In other words, if you reduce the complexity of our collective problems to sweeping generalizations and sound bytes – your posited solutions will be inadequate.  Real solutions will must include the realization that there are both systemic, and personal issues contributing to people’s messes — and both will need to be addressed.

The government can’t address the personal side of this equation effectively at all.  It has neither the bandwidth, nor the moral authority to do so.  This is where the church comes in because the church is called to build loving relationships with people, and it’s in the context of those kinds of relationships that people will find both the guidance and strength to take next steps – some of which require subsidies, while others require confrontation and painful consequences. This is messy.  This is time consuming.  And this is the calling of the church.  It’s why our church has a homeless shelter, and emerging partnerships with ministries that cross the social divide between wealth and poverty in order to provide the kind of caring relationships that can both liberate and empower people.

It’s hard, and the key to our own joy and transformation as I write about here. The more popular response today is to speak in sound bytes about the evils of the other party.  But that kind of response, while popular today, has nothing to do with the kingdom of God.

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  • GG

    The sign is provocative only because it is polarizing. It makes judgement calls on anyone who supports the Occupy Wall Street movement lazy, freeloading and everything in between.

    I find it unfortunate that the message of the movement is getting lost as so many attach their causes to a basic call for justice.

    The person who wrote the sign simply lacks the time it takes to understand our current situation. While I may have been a supporter of his statements being a young 20-something, but have a better understanding at 35 how badly we have been taken advantage of by the government and banksters.

    This does not mean I haven’t worked hard. I paid off my student loans 5 years ago. My family and I live on a budget below our means(thank you to Dave Ramsey back in 2006), and have no consumer debt.

    However, their is more uncertainty in the mighty ol’USA than ever, and I have concerns for my son and daughters future.

    This person does not yet have the knowledge a $4500.00 ER bill brings to your life(as I just experienced when my son broke his arm. Thank you high deductible plan.) He/she also hasn’t seen their 401k lose 30 years of value practically overnight.

    I personally have never worked harder for less, and feel like I am getting squeezed by the system at every turn.

    There are MILLIONS of people who are victims of circumstance due to the gambling ways of the folks on wall street and bankers. They knew what they were doing, and the proof is in the fact that that they still have jobs, and the executives have an unimaginable amount of wealth.

    A civilization can be judged by how it treats it’s weakest members. Unfortunately the vast majority a paycheck or illness away from being treated very poorly.

    This student doesn’t quite understand this yet, but 10+ years in the workforce will team him/her plenty.

  • Joe

    Love your response Richard, I completely agree that politics will never provide a solution or the whole picture. However, I did really enjoy this liberal response to a similar letter.

    it provides a sensible and nuanced response and makes you think about what do we really our country to look like

  • I think this is a good post in that it addresses the complexity of the issue. As someone firmly aligned with OWS, I would like to add that both corporations and goverment policy have a huge influence on personal behavior, particularly in the area of finances. I’ll use tax policy as an example. Now, I don’t believe that tax deductions should be the primary motivation behind charitable giving (religious or otherwise), but it’s a nice bonus, and it does serve as an incentive to some. The probelm with the tax code in this area is that the giving of home owners is valued more highly than the giving of renters. This is because, for most of us who are employees, the determining factor in whether you get to deduct your charitable giving from your taxes is whether or not you are paying enough mortgage interest to the banks. A married couple who actually manages to give a tenth of their income would have to have made $114,000 between them for their giving to be a deduction. (You can dial that number back a bit if they have other schedule A deductions such as state taxes or really high out of pocket medical bills). If they buy a house, the interest they pay to the bank becomes a deduction, and that makes all their other deductions kick in…until they pay off enough of their mortgage that the interest gets too low to support the other deductions. In this case, government policy does not favor home ownership (the deduction oges away when the home is paid off). It favors indebtedness. My solution: make charitable giving an “above the line” deduction like student loan interest.

    The other thing that I would ask this person is what (s)he would say to someone who has never missed a mortage or credit card payment but is still stuck in a mortgage because the home has lost half its value. Not only do I think it would be the right thing for the banks to work with homeowners like this, but it’s in their interest because it would get the housing market moving again.

  • jeb

    i have always appreciated your thoughtfulness and perspective and attempt at balance, Richard. So, various sides of the political debate act responsively toward each other, presenting extreme end positions when the reality is that life is more complex as there is some truth in both.
    Early in adulthood i worked in education. I taught literacy to students in the ghetto. I dealt with students who were encouraged to not learn by their parents (usually single mothers)because families got more government funding if there were children with learning problems. So at the age of 14, my students can’t read and they are torn about learning to do so because of parental pressure. Other parents are having more babies with random men for the same reason, there is more money from the government for a bigger family. Meanwhile the children in these homes are not benefiting from this money. They have poor health and don’t have things basic to life in a ‘developed’ America. In the midst of all this many people talk about race being the issue that is keeping these people down.

    Later, I worked in construction. One of the jobs was making energy efficiency changes on homes that was free to the owners (thanks to a government program). What bugged me was that a number of people who were so called low income wage earners, that my tax money went to help, had big entertainment centres and 60,000 dollars worth of harley davidson motorcycles in the garage. Meanwhile, I and one of my co-workers both lived in our vehicles because we couldn’t afford rent and school loans on our wages (which were higher than the minimum $4.25 at the time). I suppose i made up for my own personal tax investment in this program by making wages to install the insulation. However, it is no surprise that the government would have no accountability for it’s more current multibillion dollar stimulus dispersal and that funds didn’t go toward real needs.

    Last year I made well below the government poverty level. I didn’t have health insurance. I also hurt my back, dislocated three fingers and had pnuemonia for two months. I was very happy that a non-profit health clinic was in my community funded in part by government.

    It would seem that outside help is sometimes needed by people even responsible, generally healthy people because stuff happens. The goofy thing in my mind is why people think it is government who should do this when they have proven themselves inefficient, misguided, corrupt. And as you have pointed out, Richard, government cannot address the personal side of it. Personal needs for connection, friendship, spiritual freedom….The personal need for responsibility, integrity and morality both for those who need and for those in power. Perhaps any system will be abused by those who use it and those who control it. It would seem though that the church can call people to act well within the act of responding to need. It can be local and build local relationships. It is much more accountable to members funding it.
    It is interesting to me that a majority of hospitals have names like ST. something or other. That before people had the idea that there was some big brother government out there that should take care of people, that churches and religious organizations founded places to care for others. I can’t help but think that in taking over the ‘care’ role in the country governmental powers wanted to do so because they didn’t like the gospel message that often came with it. Perhaps if the Church got back to being active in caring for the whole needs of people then the perception of welfare entitilement and the corruption of government could be reduced. And most importantly people might see Jesus as someone they would like to get to know.

  • John Hinson

    I sure hope these Wall Street traders can get us out of this mess….because they are the only ones that can.

    Save the pensions.
    Save the 401ks.
    Save the housing market.
    Save personal loans.
    Save business loans.
    Save the government.
    Save the education system.
    Save health care.
    Save our jobs.
    Save the Church.
    ..stabilize the entire world with our currency.

    Plus – I’m really looking forward to an iPad 3, more movies to download on Netflix, more music and more cool posts on Facebook! It would be pretty sweet to go back to school as well…do something I love instead of just “working”.

    Looking forward to the next bubble and praying for Wall Street!

  • Adam Finch

    I have been enjoying your blog Richard, thank you for sharing. I am currently abroad, living and working in Seoul, South Korea. I recently broke my thumb and I was taken back by how inexpensive it was to receive treatment. Just a few days ago, I was able to walk into a hospital (without an appointment) and in 30 min I had received x-rays, a prognosis and a cast for under $20. Other times I’ve traveled abroad I’ve had similar experiences. I guess ultimately I am disappointed that things like healthcare have been so profoundly effected by greed. I mean that’s really the only way I can explain it.

    Anyway, once again, thanks for your blog Richard,


  • Megan

    Well said GG. I’m there. And I can speak from experience — a $17,000 emergency fund can be wiped out in a day in the intensive care unit. A $100,000 retirement fund isn’t enough to cover saving the life of your 6-year-old with leukemia (as my friend and former small business owner found out 15 years ago). Paying off your house early only means the nursing home gets all of the proceeds from its sale (so your mother can get nursing care you can’t provide or pay for) instead of the bank getting paid first.

    Poverty is NOT a symptom of “moral failing” nor is wealth a sign of “divine approval.” Bad things can and do happen to good people through no fault of their own — just look a Job (though he was a special case so to speak).

  • Megan

    Pastor Dahlstrom,

    I do wonder why you posted that particular sign on Facebook.

    Should Christians maybe sometimes confront the money changers in the Temple — and even over turn their tables? Is there an element of that in OWS? Just wondering.

    And glad you acknowledged, in your post, that things are not black and white and simple all over.

    Curious too how Sign Holder above would support himself and pay his tuition and eat on a minimum wage job if he didn’t have those scholarships or if he had a child to support or couldn’t afford rent in any area close to the university but also lacked access to transportation, etc.?

  • Richard

    I am a European, and we too have our weaknesses, and there is much about the left that is very open to challenge. But I find the signholder both illogical, unbiblical and sadly not atypical of a strain of conservative American thinking.

    It’s illogical as it assumes that we are all somehow entirely responsible for our fortunes, and that there is no interconnectedness between us. As you, and others here, say, this is demonstrably false as soon as ill-health strikes in a non-socialised health system. However, the lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of economics is baffling. The increase in personal debt over the last 30 years is a direct consequence of the increase in inequality of income and assets. That’s not only because of lack of contentedness and greed but simply as a smaller and smaller group of people have a larger and larger share of the common resources only two things can be done with the excess wealth that the wealthy hold – consumption or investment. As there is a limit to even conspicuous consumption much of these wealth was invested. But in a a capitalist system my investment in you is your debt to me. Worse, having ordered our economies around consumption, your job depended upon someone else consuming, and as they increasingly lacked the werewithal to purchase without borrowing against the future (typically expected increase in house values) debt was the only way to keep the economy growing and jobs safe. This has been the practical result of failing to understand the interconnectedness of economic activity, and the nexus of greed and power of the 1%.

    The signholder’s view is unbiblical as it is self-righteous and self-sufficient, giving no thanks to or even recognition of God the giver and sustainer of all things.

    Sadly it seems a common view among Tea Party-ish folks (who seem to be funded and inspired by people very far from common mould). The reality is that the hard work that brings reward depend upon the rule of law, transportation infrastructure, and for businesses a healthy and educated workforce. This requires a functioning, funded government. If you don’t believe that open a hardware store in Mogadishu. Or speak, as I have, to Ford executives about how their bigggest single health insurance problem is not the costs of policies but an increasingly unhealthy workforce in their 50s.

    Sorry long response, but I struggle to find anything more depressing than the ignorance, arrogance and smugness set out in the sign above.

  • John Hinson

    To rephrase my post: I hope EVERYONE succeeds.

    Traders and Bankers, tough job and I respect you. I have been reliant on your success from day one, and I feel that everyone else has as well. Keep up the good work.

    OWS folks, I respect movement and action. Protests keep the big machines in check and I hope you succeed at getting us a better financial world in the future.

    Workers without influence, I am one of you. Hopefully we can all keep getting up every morning and moving forward for our families, friends, co-workers and loved ones.

    We are all on the same team, let’s hope we ALL win.