A Moral Budget


BOB ABERNETHY, host and correspondent: We have a report today on the moral choices involved in the intense negotiations underway in Washington over what to do about the country’s $14.3 trillion debt. If the debt ceiling is not raised by August 2, in just one month, the Treasury Department says for the first time in American history the government will not have enough money to meet all its obligations. The Administration wants Congress to raise the debt ceiling so the government can borrow more to pay those bills. But many members of Congress say they want, first, a believable long-term plan to reduce the deficit. So far, there’s no agreement on such a plan, so the debt limit remains, and so does the countdown to default.

All over Washington, from Congress to the White House, among the K Street lobbies, at the think tanks, and at scores of conferences and panels, experts are trying to solve the problem. One experienced voice has been that of retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming. He was the co-chair of last year’s special presidential commission on the debt.

ALAN SIMPSON: If we don’t get a plan out of this by August 2, then hang on tight.

ABERNETHY: And “hang on tight” implies what?

post01-moralbudgetSIMPSON: Implies inflation. It implies the people who are going to loan us money want more interest for it. It will be a different lifestyle for Americans, and inflation will eat through the system, and the little guy will be the guys most hammered.

ALICE RIVLIN: If we don’t raise the debt limit, we would probably have a crash in the markets, and it would be very serious.

ABERNETHY: Brookings Institution economist Alice Rivlin headed the budget offices at both Congress and the White House.

RIVLIN: I think we are talking about a moral issue. We do not want to leave our children and our grandchildren with a worse economy and a much harder life than we are enjoying.

ABERNETHY: There’s no mystery about the cause of the debt problem. As the number of older Americans has gone up, so have the costs of the so-called entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. New medical technology drives up health care costs, and two wars have gone unpaid for. It’s estimated that the war in Afghanistan is costing nearly $120 billion dollars this year.

RIVLIN: To borrow without limit and without thinking how we are going to pay this back seems to me stupid and immoral.

ABERNETHY: For Simpson, there is also the problem of selfishness.

SIMPSON: Well, don’t blame it all on Congress. Blame it on the American people who sent people to Washington to bring home the bacon. And the way you got re-elected was you just went and got it for them, and now the pig is dead. There is no more bacon to bring home.

post02-moralbudgetABERNETHY: Solving the debt problem is not only an economic and political challenge. The crisis raises basic philosophical and moral questions about the kind of government and society Americans want. Last April, the conservative majority in the House of Representatives passed a budget for next year proposed by the chair of its budget committee, Paul Ryan. He outlined his plan to the American Enterprise Institute.

PAUL RYAN: This budget begins by lowering taxes, with the top individual and corporate tax rate capped at 25 percent, so we can get real growth and economic competition in America.

ABERNETHY: And then…

RYAN: …it cuts $6.2 trillion in spending from the president’s budget over just the next 10 years. It is not just a budget, it is a cause…

ABERNETHY: …the conservative cause of reducing the size of government. Michael Gerson, a former White House speech writer, is a columnist for the Washington Post.

MICHAEL GERSON: I think it is fair to say that conservatives are not just interested in a balanced budget. They want a limited government which is, you know, a smaller government, a less expansive government. That’s really a conservative argument here, that too much government undermines the independence and responsibility of citizens.

ABERNETHY: The Ryan budget drew sharp criticism from many in the religious communities, among them former congressman and ambassador Tony Hall.

post03-moralbudgetTONY HALL: We need to get our fiscal house in order, but not on the backs of the poor and hungry. They didn’t get us into this current mess, and hurting them is not the way out of it.

ABERNETHY: Jim Wallis is the editor of Sojourners magazine.

JIM WALLIS: Those of us who are Christians are bound by Jesus’ command to protect the least of these the most, the most, so we ask what would Jesus cut?

ABERNETHY: The two chairmen of the Catholic bishops committees on domestic and international justice wrote Congress expressing their “serious concern.” So did 75 scholars, most of them at the Catholic University of America. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, says she and others oppose the House budget because it doesn’t seem to reflect Catholic social teaching.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: The essence of Catholic social teaching is that it is based on the dignity of the human person, that we all hold dignity because we are created by God, that together in society we hold shared responsibility for each other. Government’s role then becomes to ensure that the least are cared for. That’s why it’s so chilling to us to watch what’s going on in Congress about the budget. It’s the very safety net programs that the current budget fight is targeting, and to me this is wrong. It, quite frankly, is immoral.

ABERNETHY: Congressman Ryan, too, is Catholic. He agrees that the poor and sick should not be hurt, but he insists the way to avoid that is to keep taxes low so private investors can create new jobs.

post05-moralbudgetCAMPBELL: That’s just wrong. The wealthy have recovered to pre-recession levels. Are they investing in jobs? No.

ABERNETHY: And what about leaving massive debt to our children?

CAMPBELL: I think it’s not a good idea. But there is a simple fix. You can solve this issue in a very simple way. Raise revenue.

ABERNETHY: Not something easy to do. As the moral debate sharpened, Ryan wrote a letter to the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, insisting that his budget does indeed respect Catholic social teaching. The archbishop replied that he was happy to hear that. In the midst of the arguments, there was a brief diversion over the ideas of Ayn Rand, the late atheist writer and philosopher whose book, The Fountainhead, and a movie based on it, were popular in the 1950s. Rand preached a radical, small government, everyone-for-himself libertarianism which some congressmen, among them Paul Ryan, said they had admired. A liberal blogger tried to discredit them with a film contrasting Rand’s selfish individualism with the teachings of Jesus.

In spite of all the claims and charges, many observers do see middle ground.

SIMPSON: You can’t tax your way out of this baby, and you can’t cut spending as your way out of this baby. It has to be a blend.

post06-moralbudgetABERNETHY: But all the moral debate has not made compromise easy.

GERSON: I think moral motivations in politics are very important. But when you claim that your own views somehow have a divine sanction, you’ve cut off all political argument. This should be an argument about outcomes, what is really best for the justice and decency of a society. I think a limited government is important to that, and I think a government that provides some of the most basic needs for the most vulnerable people in society is important to that as well. That’s where a lot of Americans are.

ABERNETHY: Alan Simpson thinks his former colleagues will head off a national crisis and that their constituents will accept the need for sacrifice.

SIMPSON: I think there are a lot more heroes in Congress than we recognize.

ABERNETHY: Gerson and Rivlin say they, too, are at least somewhat optimistic.

GERSON: You are going to have to have Republican and Democratic leaders come together around this. They’re very dug in, but there is no other choice.

RIVLIN: There will be a lot of posturing and a lot of difficulty, but we will raise the debt ceiling, and over the next several years we will bring our debt under control.

post07-moralbudgetABERNETHY: Alice Rivlin was the director of the budget offices at both Congress and the White House. She served on two budget commissions. She says last year there were unofficial focus groups in 26 cities that were asked to work on the debt problem. When they heard the facts, Rivlin says, each of them was able to work out a plan. Not all of them came up with the same solution, but no one failed to reach agreement on something. It seems to be quite different for Congress and the White House, raising the question whether the federal government can compromise and act on an issue as difficult as this one, with so much moral passion and partisan ideology.

More on this with our managing editor Kim Lawton. Kim?

KIM LAWTON: Bob, the religious community continues to be very involved in this debate, bringing some of that moral passion, and they are lobbying on both sides or all sides of this issue. This week we had 24 religious and charitable organizations writing a letter to the Administration and congressional leaders saying in all of your debt ceiling discussions don’t forgot about the poor, the vulnerable, the least of these, what they called them. And on the other side you had religious conservatives lobbying Congress, saying don’t accept any debt ceiling solution that doesn’t include dramatic spending cuts, and they also used moral language, saying it’s wrong to leave debt to our children, using a biblical passage to support that. So, again, energy on all sides on this moral question.

ABERNETHY: That’s right, and morally and ideologically it spills over into the whole idea of a smaller government, which of course is what the conservatives want very much.

post08-moralbudgetLAWTON: And that’s a big issue on the campaign trail, too, which is really heightening all of the political rhetoric on Capitol Hill out on the campaign trail. So many of the GOP candidates are out there really appealing to the conservative base, talking about these issues. Michele Bachmann, the new GOP candidate, who is an evangelical Christian, very much reaching out to her base saying I’m not going to support, I’m not going to vote for any debt ceiling measure that doesn’t include dramatic spending [cuts]. And of course, you know, religious conservatives are so important for the GOP during this period because about forty percent of Republican primary voters are self-identified evangelicals, so everybody’s sort of reaching out to them, seeing it as a big stepping stone.

ABERNETHY: Do they have any favorites so far?

LAWTON: They seem to be pretty divided still. Michele Bachmann polled very well in Iowa this week, which surprised a lot of people. She’s very popular among those very conservative religious groups. But there are disagreements among evangelicals. Some take a more moderate point of view. Evangelical leaders in a recent poll liked Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota governor, but he’s not as well known nationally, so there still seems to be a lot of room for jockeying among evangelicals.

ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, there’s the whole issue of fourteen million people who can’t find jobs.

LAWTON: And that’s the big issue that’s really dominating everything, and people are jockeying for a solution, and no one seems to have a good solution. So, indeed, that’s really been overshadowing so many of the other issues that you often hear about early in a campaign, and that’s what you see the candidates talking about, and obviously that’s what you see members of Congress wrestling over with the Administration as well.

ABERNETHY: Kim Lawton, many thanks.

  • Jack

    If you give money to congress, they will spend it and borrow more. It is time to stop them. But simpson is right, American people are to blame, and the philosophers who taught them.

  • E.Patrick Mosman

    The seven practices of charity toward our neighbor, based on Christ’s prophecy of the Last Judgment, that will determine each person’s, not government bureaucrats, final destiny was taught to me from the Baltimore Catechism:
    1. Feed the hungry
    2. Give drink to the thirsty
    3. Clothe the naked
    4. Shelter the homeless
    5. Visit the sick
    6. Visit those in prison
    7. Bury the dead
    Is it the role of government to be the essential and probably soon the only source of Charity as the Obama administration plans to reduce the tax credits for charitable contributions for those who provide the most: most

    This would have a serious impact on the financial ability of all religious affiliated charities to carry out their good works.
    When does confiscatory tax rates in the guise of ‘for the common good’ on wage earners who already provide 90%+ of all incomes tax revenues become a challenge to the ability of religious and non-government charitable organizations to carry out their own charitable functions? 47 percent of all wage earners pay no income tax and are already recipients of considerable welfare in the guise of tax credits, SSI, food stamps, housing and programs to numerous to list here.
    It appears that Catholic Church and other religious groups do not even recognize that Obama plans to reduce or eliminate religious organizations and non-government groups, from their historic roles and replace them with socialistic government run programs.
    For those who claim that Jesus was a big-government socialist provider with regard to helping those in need and reducing individuals personal responsibility to only “Love the Neighbor’ and replacing it with government programs is a misreading of His message. Jesus Christ made the point “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” with no guidelines as to how the Romans were to spend the tax monies.
    “For you will have the poor always with you” Matthew 26.11 and nowhere in the New
    Testament does Jesus Christ lay the responsibility for caring for the poor, the sick the hungry or thirsty, the homeless or any oppressed people on any governmental body. He did not cite King Herod, the priests of the temple, the local politicians or the Roman powers as the source of Charity. He made it an individual responsibility time after time in His sermons, in His parables and in His own acts. The Good Samaritan was not an example of “Love thy neighbor” because he stopped at the inn to make a 911 call but because he acted, providing aid, comfort and financial assistance to his neighbor. Jesus Christ’s teachings cannot be used be used to support states becoming the major or only source of charitable acts.

  • Ariel

    The budget _is_ primarily a moral issue, but not for the reasons claimed in this discussion. Rather the fundamental moral consideration is: do we have the right to act on the basis of our own convictions and aspirations, or do we need permission from “society” on how to live our lives? Individual rights are what this country was founded on, and accounted for its meteoric rise to prosperity. The waning respect for individual rights accounts for its decline.

    Religious faith should _never_ be the basis for gvt policy. Consistent with the notion of individual rights, that’s why we have separation of church and state. It’s also why we should have separation of economy and state as well.

    Equating selfishness with pork barrel spending is ridiculous. True selfishness, as Ayn Rand reminds us, means being rational, planning long-term, and sustaining one’s life by means of one’s own effort. Whereas stealing—whether it’s by a common crook or by the gvt—is a policy for disaster. In regard to the latter, there’s nothing “unobvious” about why we’ve suffered economic setbacks over the years, as some in the media like to claim. Nor is there anything unobvious about why we face looming fiscal catastrophe now.

    If the gvt defaults on the debt, the consequences are not on the heads of those who uncompromisingly call for spending cuts, but on those who call for yet more taxes, gvt spending. That’s because morally, that money never belonged to the gvt in the first place. Gvt never had any right to forcibly take money from those who earned it, and give it to others.

    Paul Ryan’s budget plan only seeks to cut the _rate of increase_ in spending, rather than make the sort of drastic spending and regulatory cuts necessary to avert looming, global economic catastrophe. This apparently represents the extent of our political will to resolve unsustainable fiscal folly, and leftists howl. Greece and even the Great Depression will look like a picnic.

    “…there was a brief diversion over the ideas of Ayn Rand, the late atheist writer and philosopher whose book, The Fountainhead, and a movie based on it, were popular in the 1950s. Rand preached a radical, small government, everyone-for-himself libertarianism which some congressmen, among them Paul Ryan, said they had admired.”

    This appears to be a deliberate attempt to understate Ayn Rand’s influence, both in the past and especially today. Notice that Rand’s magnum opus _Atlas Shrugged_ isn’t even mentioned, when it was named in a Library of Congress survey as being the most influential book Americans have ever read, second only to the Bible. Consider why it has been selling steadily for fifty-three years, and at an all-time high, with sales at least tripling since Obama took office. Consider the parallels between the novel’s dystopian portrayal, and today. Observe that one in every three Americans now identifies with the Tea Party, and that the number one influence on the Tea Party is: Ayn Rand.

    Even arch-leftist Paul Krugman cast the fundamental issue today as being between those in favor of the welfare state, and those who seek to dismantle it. Of course he identified with the former, and proudly, accurately, tellingly identified with Rand’s arch-villain in The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey.

    “You can’t tax your way out of this baby, and you can’t cut spending as your way out of this baby. It has to be a blend.”

    Why? This shibboleth has been uttered repeatedly over the years, which is why we’re in such a tight jam today. We don’t have the luxury of following such faith-based utterances now, if indeed we ever did. Raising taxes and increasing gvt control will just destroy the economy further, and progressively enslave us. Emulating socialist Europe is no solution; look at what a tight jam they’re in themselves. The only moral and practical solution is to massively cut government regulation and spending.

  • David Franks

    RE “Individual rights are what this country was founded on, and accounted for its meteoric rise to prosperity.”
    This nation’s most meteoric rise to prosperity– the 1950s and 60s– had much higher income tax rates than we have had since the 1980s. Eliminating the Bush tax cuts would result in lower taxes than Reagan left us with.

    In other words, we can solve the deficit “problem” and outdo Saint Ronnie at the same time.

  • reg

    “This appears to be a deliberate attempt to understate Ayn Rand’s influence, both in the past and especially today. Notice that Rand’s magnum opus _Atlas Shrugged_ isn’t even mentioned, when it was named in a Library of Congress survey as being the most influential book Americans have ever read, second only to the Bible.” i wouldn’t understate her influence OR that of the bible: they’re both works of fiction, i.e. lies. Anybody who takes Ayn Rand seriously, just as anyone who takes the bible literally is just this side of lunatic.

  • Hillbilly62000

    … Let’s have a refresher shall we. 1 From 2001 to 2008 you have slashed taxes to the lowest level’s they have ever been, and under the Bush Administration you we’re losing job’s long before 2007, and your tax revenue was going down for all them wonderful Bush Tax Breaks that did zero in job creation, and then with the bush Tax cut’s not even being paid for, and 2 war’s that are not paid for, and the wealthy not creating any job’s with the windfall that they have received for the last ten yrs you are wanting to put this on the people you put out of work by voting these goons into office??? Wow I find it amazing that you would even want to try to quote what you think Jesus would do. ……

  • Cynthia

    Just a thought–bring back to the U.S. all factories and means of production owned by Americans, give those jobs to Americans. Companies that refuse to do so should be taxed at a higher rate, because they are contributing to the national debt. More employed people mans more people buying American-made goods. I don’t mind buying some well-made foreign products, but I do object to buying Brazilian apple juice when we have sufficient orchards in this country, and the FDA, to provide for our needs.

  • Pastor Johnny L Wright

    Am I my brother’s keeper? As a Christian, I say YES. But what does that mean? I am resposible for him in anyway that I can. It is ironic that politicians want to cut entitlements. However, the never want to cut their own. I once told my teenage Sunday School Class that leaders lead by example. If you see a task, that needs to be done do it. If I have to pay exhorbant prices for bare bones basic health insurance (which I have not had for 3 months), why can’t Congress contribute to their healthcare costs? Why can’t Congress and the President reduce their income?

    As a citizen, I see the rich expanding their resources and the poor expanding their numbers. I see many people who what to be leaders and very few who can lead. Moral or civil, which do we chose? We are called to be good stewards. Yes, their will be poor that will be hurt. How much will depend on am I my brother’s keeper? We can’t just cut our way out on entitlements. Cuts must happen but income must increase. I am a living example I have cut back (no house, down to one car, only buy the necessities, no new investments) but I have also worked to increase income (took on day work, part-time jobs, etc). We can’t be penny wise and pound foolish.

  • bluebuss

    for the last time – trickle down does not work!!!!! God please have somone stand up for the working class!!!

  • E.Patrick Mosman

    It is said that President Reagan once said the most frightening words are “I am from the government and I am here to help you.” The industrial might of the United States did not result from government leadership but from the government getting out of the way of inventors, investors and entrepreneurs. The industrial might of the United States is slowly but surely being tied down by ill-conceived and unnecessary rules, regulations and mandates as surely as Gulliver was tied-up by the Lilliputins.
    It wasn’t President Reagan or any Republican who said the following in 1939;
    “We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work … After eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started … And an enormous debt to boot!”
    No it was Henry Morgenthau
    Treasury Secretary under FDR
    Those who continue to advocate for more and more government spending and higher taxes obviously have never read or understood Santayana’s words “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, FDR’s big government programs failed to end the depression of the 1930s as any review of that period’s economy history shows conclusively. However, tax cuts and economic incentives to the private sector introduced by Kennedy, Reagan and Bush brought ends to recessions and generated economic growth. Following FDR’s failed policies for the past 18 months led to higher unemployment, has not produced job growth except in the public sector, more IRS agents to investigate working taxpayers, many of those are temporary, and for some unionized workers, GM and Chrysler. Saving public sector jobs by robbing from taxpayers like Peter and Patricia or borrowing from lenders like Ping and Pong to pay Paul and Pauline is not a sustainable path to create jobs and end a recession.
    It is “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” Albert Einstein
    Of course, most politicians and economists conveniently forget that President Roosevelt did not refer to a social security tax back in 1935.

    In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, noncontributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps thirty years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions. Second, compulsory contributory annuities which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now young and for future generations. Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age. It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.

    We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.

    The introduction of IRA and 401K programs was intended to fulfill FDR’s stated goals and they, at least the 401Ks, are endangered by democratic ideas to eliminate these programs and replace with mandated contributions into new federal program, the GRA. The idea that all individuals could accumulate some wealth and leave it to their heirs is anathema to socialists.

  • Ariel

    David Franks said:

    “This nation’s most meteoric rise to prosperity– the 1950s and 60s– had much higher income tax rates than we have had since the 1980s. Eliminating the Bush tax cuts would result in lower taxes than Reagan left us with.”

    Actually, the greatest growth in our country’s history was in the nineteenth century, when taxes and spending were a tiny fraction of what they are now. No income tax, little in the way of a welfare or regulatory state, double or triple the economic growth.

    Prosperity doesn’t occur because of higher taxes, but in spite of it. Unfortunately much has changed since even the Reagan administration: we have exponentially higher, economy-destroying gvt spending and regulation, especially under Bush/Obama. Statists don’t have the wiggle room to raise taxes anymore, if indeed they ever did.

  • Ariel

    reg said:

    “i wouldn’t understate her influence OR that of the bible: they’re both works of fiction, i.e. lies. Anybody who takes Ayn Rand seriously, just as anyone who takes the bible literally is just this side of lunatic.”

    Works of fiction are lies, and we shouldn’t take them seriously. Interesting perspective

    Just as the untold millions of people that took epoch-changing works of fiction like _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ seriously were just this side of lunatic, right?

  • Fr. Clayton Kilburn, CM

    The Gosple call to charity will never be met by means of Government regulations. Regulations only lead to socialistic intitlements to faceless people the government does not see, and enormous abuses. It is the Gospel itself that must inspire personal acceptance of moral obligation toward those in need. It is the leading by example by those who personally commit themselves to Christian charities at much personal sacrafice that inspire greater charity of others. It is greater support of private charities that should be encouraged, not goverment takeover of caring for others.

  • Rhonda Trejo

    Scary part is that according to nightly news if budget isn’t balanced soon, ss cks might not be issued! guess that’s a preview for losing them NOT GOOD! AN INCENTIVE FOR ENSURING THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN: EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE & SENATE SHOULD IMMEDIATELY HAVE ALL PERKS STOPPED UNTIL THE BUDGET IS BALANCED ON THE LONG-TERM STATUS! Thet get paid & should have to pay their own way. We have to. IF they don’t pay attention to voters’ needs/opinions, then why should they get compensated?????

  • JDE

    @Ariel: “Unfortunately much has changed since even the Reagan administration: we have exponentially higher, economy-destroying gvt spending and regulation, especially under Bush/Obama.”

    Actually, spending, especially the military budget, increased much more dramatically under Bush – but don’t let facts get in your way.