My friends are tired of hearing me bemoan how seldom public discourse ever gets around to addressing substantive issues of justice, such as the shape of public finance and budgeting. So I suppose I ought to be rejoicing that our nation is conducting serious high-level debates about economic priorities: fierce budget battles in Washington; statehouse rallies in Wisconsin in support of beleaguered public-sector unions; deficit hawks wielding the budget axe with a vengeance; Congressional wrangling on debt ceiling extensions.
Sure, I am glad that such matters at least occasionally eclipse celebrity scandals and have maintained a place on the front page alongside the recent crises in Japan and Libya. If I harbor disappointment, it is because so many of our political leaders are getting it all wrong and are endorsing the wrong priorities entirely.
The shape of the current budget debates changes from minute to minute, and there is no way to predict the eventual outcome. Will we avert a government shutdown, or will the reckless game of “chicken” prevent sensible bipartisan compromise? But beyond the ebb and flow of events, a key challenge is to stay in touch with the bedrock ethical principles that should guide any process of social deliberation. Spiritual writers use the phrase id quod volo (“that which I desire”) to capture this task of discerning proper and heartfelt goals. I deeply desire to live in a country that:
1. Does not abandon its poor to starvation, homelessness and destitution. Deficit hawks always seem to circle above the prey of anti-poverty programs, especially those with shadowy names like community services block grants. But the more you know about the crucial assistance they provide to struggling people and neighborhoods, the more eager you will be to exempt these particular heads from the chopping block. Investments in community health centers, job training and early childhood development for disadvantaged groups, through programs like Head Start, will surely in the long run save money for government at all levels. Current proposals to cut them sharply amount to eating our seed corn. Whether we argue from outcomes or from ethics, it is easy to agree with a line from a recent letter from the U.S. bishops’ conference to the Senate: “In a time of economic crisis, poor and vulnerable people are in greater need of assistance, not less.”
2. Protects the rights of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Several cash-strapped states are seeking to limit the influence of public-sector unions. Even some Catholic voices, like the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, are piling on against the unions, demonizing them as impediments to prosperity and justice. To his great credit, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee stepped up to defend the constant tradition of church support for organized labor, writing: “Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” Scapegoating and demonizing organized labor is a sure sign that the drift of public deliberation is turning away from authentic social justice.
3. Maintains a commitment to the least privileged around the world. The slash-and-burn approach to budget-cutting has targeted the already modest funding the United States provides to assist programs crucial for development. Foreign aid makes possible life-saving public health and social service outreach to some of the poorest people on earth. Cut-ting humanitarian aid and international pover-ty-focused development assistance would seriously undermine our nation’s leadership position in the world community. Fighting epidemics and helping people grow subsistence crops are not optional expenditures for a responsible nation, no matter how badly it needs to pinch pennies.
Each of us could compile a much longer list of deep desires, but these three priorities will always be near the top of my list.
Sure, deficits are serious concerns, but the current budget process is heading in a direction that is ethically and practically indefensible. Leaders from both parties appear not to be acting on consistent principles and seem unaware of the real human costs they are imposing through austerity plans. When politicians hide behind the mantra, “We are broke,” I am often tempted to think, “Morally bankrupt may be more like it.”