I just started reading a book, The Submerged State, by Suzanne Mettler. She noted that the government supports various programs, such as home ownership and student loans, in a way that renders the benefit invisible to the user. This method of support distorts our political decisions because people do not see how the government has benefited them. (Read the book or at least check out her brief essay in The New York Times).
The government can support people directly through direct transfer payments such as TANF (once known as welfare) or indirectly through tax policies, such as home mortgage deductions, earned income tax credit, or not taxing health insurance benefits. The impact on the budget is the same whether the person receives the benefit through a direct transfer payment or through a tax credit. However, Mettler points out that the benefits for programs supported through tax policy tend to favor the wealthy over the poor (except for the Earned Income Tax Credit). Furthermore, because the benefits for the wealthy are obscured through tax policy, they are harder to cut (aka, raise taxes) than those benefits funded through direct transfer payments.
Mettler’s observations certainly begin to explain why Washington’s politics are at loggerheads. Many people don’t realize that they have been recipients of public largesse. When making decisions about the budget, focusing on direct transfer payments as a way to reduce the deficit is easy because that is “giving” money away that the government doesn’t have. Repealing a benefit embedded in the tax code becomes raising taxes, even though the net result on the budget can be the same.
Clearly, the policy makers in government have historically believed it plays a role in the economic well-being of the nation. And, despite the political rhetoric today, the fierce preservation of benefits through the tax code indicate that such a belief still holds true.
Mettler’s point that the submerged state does distort our politics is accurate. But I also believe that to acknowledge the government’s role in so many parts of our lives also demolishes the myth that an individual gains economic success through hard work and minimal assistance from others. The idea that “What I achieved I did on my own” gets tossed out if people acknowledge that they were beneficiaries of various government programs – it begets losing a particular cultural identity.
I think that is one of the struggles in this election year. Deep in the disagreements between the right and left is this myth. The myth goes to the heart of our cultural identity as Americans – we’re a nation founded by rugged individuals, who struck out on their own to tame a wilderness and create a great nation between two oceans. The myth overlooks displacing the Native American population and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to name only two actions by the government to promote “success” of one people over another. Neither side wants to puncture the myth. Neither side wants to acknowledge that the government (basically reflecting the policies of those with power, not necessarily in the majority) has shaped outcomes by choosing winners and losers since its earliest decades. Those who are “winners” would be reluctant to acknowledge that their status might not have been entirely by their own efforts.
So we have to be honest and admit that the government is not neutral and has not been neutral in the way it shaped and continues to shape this nation’s life. It’s a fallacy (arguably a fantasy) to believe that the government should get out of the way to let people live to their fullest potential when for many people the playing field was never even. But its disingenuous to think that the government has had a benign role in the way things are today.
Still, we’re left with government as flawed as it is. Government that is honest with itself can check power that in the past used it to oppress. Government that is honest with itself will also recognize that some of it best intentions did not render favorable outcomes. Nevertheless, the government remains a most significant institution to promote the common good.
I was reading as my devotions today, Psalm 24. It begins: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.” (Translation: Tanakh)
A good reminder that nothing we have came to us solely on our own and that we have an obligation as community to support one another. That support is critical to the common good, which is fundamental when we understand that what we have we hold in trust for God. That trust means we cannot maintain gross income and wealth inequality when people do not have food for the supper and a bed for the night. That trust also means we can’t simply give people their food or put them in a shelter and think we’ve done our job.
We’re called upon to work together, which begins with an honest recognition of the government’s role in many aspects of our lives and how even our best intentions don’t deliver the outcomes we expect. We also need to accept the hard reality that when our outcomes do not deliver what we intended, especially if they overtly favor the rich over the poor, we cannot perpetuate them because as God’s stewards we’re not honoring that all that we have is God’s.