I have to confess that given my vow of poverty I tend to think quite a bit more about death than taxes. And, for similar reasons, I don’t claim to be an expert on any and every political issue, even though here in the blogosphere that’s not always a bar to offering an opinion.
But I’ve been watching the progress of the tax compromise moving its way through Congress this week and there’s something about it that reminds me of the ocean… maybe it’s that fishy smell…
Perhaps my calculator is broken; perhaps my taste for irony is just that much stronger than my taste for Keynesian economics; perhaps I spent too much time around a grandfather who paid for his house in cash; but something in this “compromise” doesn’t make sense to me. Something, in fact, seems wrong, and I’m beginning to suspect that what is wrong has a moral tinge to it, instead of being an accounting oops or a technical legislative flaw.
Let me back up. The U.S. economy is very slowly pulling out of a very serious downturn. A large part of this downturn is due to people and banks spending wildly beyond their means and racking up massive debts they could never have hoped to pay for. The solution to this problem is for the United States government to spend wildly beyond its means, racking up debts so large they involve numbers I can’t even pronounce.
The current President of the United States campaigned criticizing the fiscal recklessness of the previous President of the United States, whose solution to every domestic problem was simply to cut taxes for everyone, including dead people (the estate tax). Compared to the fiscal rectitude of the Clinton Administration, the Bush economic policies seemed rather irresponsible to say the least. And for the Clinton Administration to outdo you in rectitude of any stripe really takes some doing.
But the current President of the United States has been criticized himself for the same sort of fiscal irresponsibility. In fact, his Republican opponents did rather well for themselves in the last election by pointing out, among other things, the un-sustainability of running a budget deficit of around 10% of GDP. We need to restrain our spending, they said, or we will face even more serious economic problems in the future. We need a new era of responsibility, of sobriety.
In light of the past election results and the rather mind-boggling budget figures, we might expect both Republicans and Democrats to agree that the budget deficit is a serious problem that needs addressing. We might even expect, given the rhetoric of the past two campaigns, that both sides would finally admit that the way to solve national problems is not to pass them off to future generations. And the solution Republicans and Democrats arrived at was to… cut taxes… while increasing spending… including several billion dollars in ethanol subsidies.
I don’t know why my calculator isn’t working. Maybe I’m holding it upside down. I suppose it’s really all the Republicans’ fault. Or maybe the Democrats’ fault. Or maybe I’m worried about nothing. What’s another $900 billion anyway?
But maybe something else is wrong here, too, maybe something more profound than the artillery barrages of partisan warfare suggest. In Light of the World, Peter Seewald asked Pope Benedict if there wasn’t a moral problem involved in the inconceivable debts being racked up by wealthy Western nations, and he replied:
Naturally, because we are living at the expense of future generations. In this respect it is plain that we are living in untruth. We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.
In classes over the past few semesters on Catholic social teaching, I’ve noticed how in Catholic thought talk of rights is usually paired with talk of duties. This pairing, it seems to me, rarely occurs in contemporary political discourse, with results like the tax “compromise” making its way through Congress right now, which is about as much of a compromise as using one credit card to pay off another credit card’s bills.
I suspect that what is really at the root of our surreal economic situation is the tendency to defend one’s own rights without considering one’s duties, coupled with the replacement of a sense of the common good with the competing demands of interest groups.
The absence of a notion of “common good,” a goal toward which we are all striving and for which we all bear responsibility, is evidenced by the disappearance of a notion of shared sacrifice from our political rhetoric. During World War II, citizens were asked to buy war bonds and collect rubber and metal. After September 11, we were told to go out and buy consumer goods in order to keep the economy chugging along. Is it a good thing for people to think that buying oneself a new flat screen TV is the ultimate act of patriotism?
“Ask not what your country can do for you…” has been replaced with “Show me the money!”
For all his eloquence, the vague hope of President Obama’s campaign often had in it the whiff of a blank check, though I’m not blaming him in particular. The Republicans who gave him a shellacking in the midterms are not even in office yet, and they’re already adding to the national debt.
So why this little expectoration of political cynicism just in time for the holiday shopping rush? I think we need to recognize how deep many of our political problems run in the United States, that our social problems in some ways reflect both the strengths and the flaws of our national character. I’m not expecting the readers of Whosoever Desires to solve the nation’s economic blues, but perhaps we can order our own lives in such a way that rights correspond to responsibilities, that we think first of our duties and then of our demands, that we live less “on the basis of appearances” and more within our means.
Maybe it will catch on. Maybe not. But maybe something even greater is at stake.