The current debt limit is not about the debt. It’s not really about taxes or spending cuts, either. This is a proxy battle over a philosophical difference concerning the role and function of our government. This difference, however, is not inconsequential. It, ultimately, shapes the community we aspire to be.
This dispute could be over in a moment if both parties (and here’s my bias… especially the GOP) stop using the debt ceiling for this confrontation. The debt ceiling authorizes the government to borrow money to pay for financial obligations it already has incurred. The haggling over the budget is political posturing. Furthermore, most of the members of the current Congress voted to spend that money without sufficient tax revenue a long time ago.
Some believe that by keeping taxes low, we will “starve the beast.” They believe the government has become the beast that is too intrusive; it limits our freedom. It tells us what we must do and what we can’t do. It takes our hard earned money and gives it to people who don’t work hard enough.
The opposing perspective maintains that the government ensures that individuals and corporations are not crushed by out-sized power. It sets boundaries to ensure the vitality of the community. It redistributes wealth because we have a moral obligation as a community to help those whose circumstances may have led to economic hardship (Mat. 25:34-40) and to ensure the health of institutions that sustain the community: schools, parks, libraries, and social services to name a few.
True, the government’s functions have been distorted by the political process. A good example is our tax code. A couple of years ago David Cay Johnston, a former tax reporter for The New York Times, published a paper that noted federal tax policies since 1961 have consistently favored the rich over everyone else (http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/is_our_tax_system_helping_us_create_wealth.pdf) so that today we have the widest disparity of income in this country since the 1920s. Essentially, we’ve tilted our tax policies to favor the wealthy.
The GOP’s insistence, however, to keep taxes from increasing, even through tax reform, will perpetuate our distorted tax policies. Implicitly they’re saying that they believe people should keep their money without having any obligation to those who are struggling economically. Furthermore, by “starving the beast,” we gut regulations or not fund their enforcement. Doing this also erases the boundaries that set limits upon practices that left unchecked would render an overly inappropriate balance of power, especially between large corporations and individuals..
We have national leaders who do not believe the government has any obligation to sustain the common good (however imperfectly we do it now). By seeking budget reform through spending cuts (while generally holding fast to the military’s highly disproportionate share of the discretionary budget), they will most likely harm the most vulnerable people in our nation. They will be harmed directly as their benefits are reduced. They will also be harmed indirectly as regulations enforcing workplace safety are reduced, as public education aid will be reduced, as government services such as access to public parks and public libraries will be reduced.
I could see them arguing to let the church work towards ensuring the common good. We do, but we don’t have the resources when only 17% of the nation’s population attend church on a regular basis. We don’t have sufficient resources to support financially all those who are economically struggling, especially when the social safety net is shredded. We’re certainly not large enough to stand against global corporations that exploit their workers or move jobs abroad to take advantage of cheap labor leaving workers here to take jobs at significantly lower pay scales. Furthermore, our ability to support the common good is severely hurt when our government actively works against it.
Our nation is already a nation of haves and have-nots. However, by eviscerating the role of government, we subject our community to the ruthless elements of capitalism, which will divide us further between haves and have-nots. We will lose our middle class, who is already feeling economically stretched. The haves can simply buy their way out of our common institutions: private schools instead of public school or private reserves rather than public parks.
I’m reading the papers every day. Despite, the professed desire on both sides to come to some agreement on the debt ceiling, I’m no longer optimistic it will happen. This routine legislation has become a battlefield between two competing visions of America. And winning a war comes with collateral damage at a terrible cost to everyone.