Minimum Wage: Rare Case of Moral Consensus

TheoPol is on hiatus, as its author explores other projects.

Picture a world where politics is not so polarized. Imagine that the American people are flat out in favor of a plan that could lift more than a million of their neighbors out of poverty. And they’re arriving at this position not out of narrow self-interests—most Americans aren’t poor—but for essentially moral reasons. Actually, not much imagination is required. At least not when it comes to public opinion on a perennial issue: the minimum wage.

For decades, polling has shown support for a higher minimum wage ranging somewhere between unambiguous and unbelievable. In November, a Gallup survey found that 76 percent of the people would vote for a hypothetical national referendum lifting the bottom wage to $9 an hour. That’s $1.75 more than the current federal minimum; it would also be more than any increase ever passed by Congress. Last summer, a less independent poll conducted by Democratic-leaning Hart Research Associates found eight in ten Americans flocking behind a $10.10 per-hour minimum wage.

Try to identify a considerable subgroup of American opinion that’s content with the $7.25 regime. You’d think, for example, that self-identified Republicans would want to either freeze the wage or tamp it down. You would be mistaken, according to the Gallup breakdown: Republicans favored the $1.75 hike by an unmistakable 58-39 percent margin. Meanwhile, in a previous Gallup poll, the support among self-identified “moderates” was rather immoderate (75 percent).

Look at it from the other end. Those who want to hold down the minimum wage are a highly distinct opinion group in American politics. They’re of a size with the percentage of Americans who, according to other polling, are certain that aliens from outer space have visited the earth, and yet, they predominate on this issue, certainly at the national level. There hasn’t been a raise in the federal minimum wage since 2009, and few are betting heavily on the Fair Minimum Wage Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, which calls for a $10.10 minimum in three, 95-cent strides over the next three years. Just looking at the numbers, it’s as if UFO believers were dictating America’s air defense strategy.

Not that you have to be nuts to balk at a minimum wage.

Arriving at a dollars-and-cents figure will always involve a prudential judgment about how high the wage could go before it burdens hiring. And there’s plenty of room for debate over whether the legislated minimum should resemble a “living wage,” enough to adequately support a family. Even Msgr. John A. Ryan, the pioneering American Catholic progressive, did not go to that length in his classic 1906 study A Living Wage. Ryan envisioned a statutory minimum wage (unlegislated nationally until 32 years later) that would fall shy of a decent family-supporting income. Filling the gaps would be social insurance policies; prime examples today include Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers.

But those are economic policy considerations. The politics of the minimum wage is a question of its own that begs attention.

Over the past few decades, public support for that policy has soared even as the value of the pay has sunk. By all accounts, if the minimum wage had merely kept pace with inflation since the late 1960s, it would be perched at well over $10 an hour today. What conclusions ought to be drawn from this thwarting of the public’s resolve? What does it say about the state of our democracy and the relations of power in our society?

A relatively benign conclusion might be that Americans aren’t particularly animated in their advocacy of a minimum-wage upgrade. In other words, the opponents may be a small choir drowning out the congregation, but that’s because the congregants aren’t trying hard to lift up their voices. That’s bound to be partly true in many policy debates including perhaps this one, but it’s equally true that those in the choir lofts of the U.S. economy have extraordinary means to project their voices, especially at a time when money is talking more loudly in politics than it has in almost a century. Lobbyists for trade groups such as National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may have relatively few kindred spirits, on this question, but they’re heard above all in Congress.

A (Martin Luther) King’s Wage

The more likely conclusion is less benign: As wealth has consolidated into fewer hands, so has the power to overrule the public on bread-and-butter issues.

Those of us who subscribe to religious social teaching often speak of the need to nurture a moral consensus on matters affecting the common good. That laudable goal, however, is beside the point when it comes to the minimum wage (and some other issues of economic fairness, such as restoring the Clinton-era tax rates on the highest incomes). And that’s because we already have such a convergence.

The impulse behind the minimum-wage consensus is a moral one, in that it’s not rooted plainly in self-interests: boosting the bottom wage would give no direct lift to most Americans. They would seem to agree with Martin Luther King: “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] … ” But the political system today is unable to process this conviction. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, remains far lower than it was when King fell to the assassin’s bullet in 1968.

It’s clear that public sentiment in favor of a higher minimum wage is powerful. The problem seems to be that the American people aren’t. …read more

Go Jonny Gomes: Political Gratitude in Play

Official Red Sox Photo

Official Red Sox Photo

If I were looking for a nearly perfect expression of social or even political gratitude, I’d have to look no further than Jonny Gomes and his remarks last night after the Red Sox beat the Cardinals 4-2, tying up the World Series. The Sox leftfielder was a last-minute stand-in for Shane Victorino, whose lower-back problems were acting up, and in the top of the sixth, he jumped on a sinkerball that didn’t sink and drove it over the leftfield wall in Busch Stadium. The three-run homer put the Red Sox on top, where they stayed.

Speaking to the press afterward, Gomes—who had a heart attack when he was 22, survived a car accident that killed one of his best friends, and was no stranger to poverty and homelessness while growing up in northern California—had this to say when asked for his thoughts:

What’s going on inside here is pretty special, magical. There’s so many people and so many mentors and so many messages and so many helping paths and helping ways for me to get here, that there’s a lot more than what I could bring individually.

Among the “helping paths” that Gomes was alluding to were those provided by the town and citizens of Petaluma, California, which saw to it that he and his older brother had enough to eat and a place to sleep through many hard times. A visible sign of his gratitude is the “707” stitched into his glove and shoes. It is the area code of Sonoma County, which includes Petaluma.

I realize that Gomes wasn’t trying to score a political point here, but he wasn’t just talking baseball, either. At that news conference, the 32-year-old was delivering what amounts to a countercultural message. The fashion of the day is to preach some variation of the I-did-it-all-by-myself gospel. In contrast, Gomes teaches the a-lot-more-than-what-I-could-bring-individually ethic.

And who are the did it it all by myselfers? In our time, they are often the ones who have reaped the greatest rewards from our winner-take-all economy, and who are troubled by the notion that they may have obligations in return. Not just personal but social obligations—taxation and other duties related to the common good.

What’s missing from the wealth gospel is a breath of reality: Truth is, government and society are involved in the production of wealth, from top to bottom. But what’s really lacking in these preachments is political gratitude. My definition of that—in our social context—is fairly simple, and minimal. Political gratitude is an acknowledgement of the tangible benefits one receives from living in the political community we call the United States of America. If you’re an oil company executive, for example, this means acknowledging the special benefits derived from leasing millions upon millions of acres of public land from the government, at what amount to rates far below any conceivable market value. For everyone, it means acknowledging the many ways that the public aids personal wellbeing and private wealth accumulation.

Aristotle said that if you want to understand what virtue is, look at a virtuous person. On the day after Game 4 of the Series, we could say: If you want to know what political gratitude is, listen to Jonny Gomes. …read more

Were the Shutdown Republicans Prophetic (After a Fashion)?

Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin at shutdown rally: Prophets in their own minds?

Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin at shutdown rally: Prophets in their own minds?

During the 16-day government shutdown, Tea Party Republicans rose above, or somewhere beyond, earthly politics. Their aim was to stay true to their principles, to be faithful, not necessarily effective. At their meeting behind closed doors on Tuesday, House Republicans began not by calling themselves to order, but by singing all three verses of “Amazing Grace.” In other words, the shutdown Republicans were prophetic in their own way.

By this, I don’t mean they accurately predicted a future state of being. If their stance foreshadowed anything, it was probably some dark days ahead for the GOP. But they were prophetic in the sense that they exhibited the style, if not the substance, of ancient biblical prophecy.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said the prophet is “an assaulter of the mind” who speaks “one octave too high.” This biblical figure is given to “sweeping generalizations” and “overstatements.” He is often “grossly inaccurate” because he concerns himself primarily with meaning, not facts, as Heschel explained in The Prophets, his classic 1962 study.

“Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out man’s ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist,” wrote Heschel, who looked the part of an Old Testament prophet, with his disorderly white hair and conspicuous white beard. The rabbi-philosopher-activist also believed that what a prophet says is radically true. It’s God’s truth, not merely the human variety.

The Tea Party crowd in Congress would seem to fit much of this description, but the truth part is problematic. Normally a prophetic stance involves speaking out for the lowly and oppressed. Prophets do not necessarily take the right stands on every issue, but they stand in the right places, biblically speaking—with the poor and vulnerable.

The job of a prophet is to “strengthen the weak hands,” as the prophet Isaiah declaimed. Arguably, in contrast, the people who brought us the shutdown are more often found strengthening the strong hands, including those of upper-bracket income earners and, at one peculiar turn in the shutdown brawl, medical device makers specifically. And to be fair, many politicians of both parties are often up to these same old tricks of that trade.

Still, the government shutdown tossed light on what you could call, especially if you edit out some biblical material, the prophetic personality.

Posted today in Tikkun Daily. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 2

Filed under the heading of everybody-and-his-aunt-wants-a-higher-minimum-wage:

Madeline Janis, on "Moyers & Company"

Madeline Janis, on “Moyers & Company”

And we kept seeing this, something that we thought was wrong. We had to be in an Alice in Wonderland story or something. We would see a “Romney for President” sign and a pro-Tea Party for Congress and “Yes on the Living Wage,” all on the same lawn. And that’s because the idea of a living wage for people and their neighbors to be able to spend money in local stores resonated.

Madeline Janis made this comment in a Bill Moyers PBS interview earlier this month. She led a campaign in Long Beach, California, to enact a startling $13-an-hour minimum wage—specifically for hotel workers in that city. That’s almost six dollars above the $7.25 per hour federal minimum. The measure appeared on the ballot last November and passed easily with 63 percent of the vote.

In the interview, Janis’s main point was that small business owners rallied behind the voter referendum. Their reasoning was, “We want more customers. We want these hotel workers to be able to buy our clothes and our food,” as she related.

But surely, this is an anomaly. Or is it? Small business owners are typically cast as dogged opponents of the minimum wage. Is it possible that most are actually in favor of jacking up the minimum?

It’s more than possible.

Late last month, the organization Small Business Majority released the results of a national poll on raising the minimum wage. Small business owners were asked whether they agree or disagree with the following statement:

Increasing the minimum wage will help the economy because the people with the lowest incomes are the most likely to spend any pay increases buying necessities they could not afford before, which will boost sales at businesses. This will increase the customer demand that businesses need to retain or hire more employees.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those surveyed agreed with this boilerplate case for a more generous minimum wage. What’s more, 67 percent of these business owners agreed with the idea of taking a higher minimum (a dollar figure wasn’t specified) and “adjusting it yearly to keep pace with inflation.”

You might ask: Was the polling sample skewed toward bleeding-heart-liberals, the kind who set up shop in hip districts of Boston and southern California? It doesn’t seem that way. Forty-six percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republican, 35 percent as Democrat, and 11 percent as independent.

People like me often talk about the need to nurture a moral consensus on important questions facing our society. But I find it hard to talk that way, when it comes to the minimum wage. And that’s because we already have a moral consensus on that issue. (See my previous post, on public opinion.)

Apparently, most Americans agree pretty much with Martin Luther King: “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] … ” But for some reason, our political system today is unable to process this conviction. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, remains lower than it was when King fell to the assassin’s bullet in 1968. Special interests are trumping national consensus.

It’s clear that public sentiment in favor of a higher minimum wage is powerful. The problem is that the American people aren’t.

TheoPol will skip the week of Memorial Day and resume the following week. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 1

Minimum wageIf the word “democracy” means anything, it means that the people usually wind up getting their way—after careful deliberation by representative bodies and broad public debate. Much has been made of the fact that the American people haven’t gotten their way lately with regard to gun control. Recent polls indicated that nearly 90 percent of Americans thought universal background checks were a sensible idea, but 54 members of the U.S. Senate disagreed. As a result, a modest bill to that effect was gunned down.

Gun control is probably not the most eye-raising case of public sentiment ignored, however. That distinction might well go to a bread-and-butter issue: the minimum wage.

The people began favoring stricter gun laws only recently, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, and it appears the trend is already letting up. On the other hand, for decades polling has shown support for a higher minimum wage rocketing somewhere between 70 and 90 percent, depending on factors including the size of the raise. Americans aren’t polarized on this issue; the politicians are.

In March, a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of the people favored President Obama’s proposal to lift the bottom wage to $9 an hour. That’s $1.75 more than the current federal minimum; it would also be the largest increase ever passed by Congress. Past polling indicates that if people were simply being asked whether they support an unspecified increase in the minimum, or a somewhat lesser amount, the backing would be even stronger.

50 Percent of Republicans

Try to identify a single major subgroup of Americans that doesn’t want to see the minimum wage go up.

You’d think, for example, that self-identified conservatives would be pretty down on the idea. They aren’t, according to the Gallup survey. They favored the $1.75 hike by a clean 54-44 percent margin. Meanwhile the support among self-identified “moderates” was rather immoderate (75 percent). Republicans were the only subgroup that didn’t give clear majority support to the proposal—but even they backed it by a plurality, 50-48 percent.

And keep in mind that we’re talking about a relatively big jump for the minimum wage. The numbers, again, would undoubtedly be higher if the boost were smaller. Very, very few people would be opposed to a raise, in principle.

There appears to be a common moral sense among Americans that a full-time wage shouldn’t keep a family in poverty; it should get a family out of poverty. Whether the federal minimum wage is the only way to do that is, of course, debatable (there’s also the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance). In any event, Obama’s $9 an hour wouldn’t get a family there. It would deliver a $3,000 a year raise to minimum wage workers, a bump up to $18,000 a year. That’s more than four thousand dollars below the official (and badly outdated) federal poverty line for a family of four.

And that’s why liberal Democrats recently pushed a bill that would have ramped up the minimum to $10.10 an hour by 2015. Even that higher amount is quite a bit lower than what the minimum wage would be today if it had merely kept up with inflation since the late 1960s. There were no takers, however, on the other side of the aisle.

On March 15, Republicans in the House of Representatives unanimously rejected the $10.10 proposal. Six Democrats joined them, in voting it down 233-184. If there’s a common moral sense on this issue, it doesn’t seem to be broadly shared in Congress.

Note: for Part 2, go here. …read more

Sightings of Moral Life in the Deficit-Hawk Universe

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

After Paul Ryan unveiled another one of his trademark balancing-the-budget-on-the-backs-of-the-poor plans, I found myself asking again, What’s the moral grounding for this fiscal sternness?

I raised that question in an item posted late last month. At the time I noted that while faith-based objections to draconian budget cuts are familiar enough, the moral and religious case in favor of such slashing is less clear. I promised to keep an eye out for real moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books.

In my search for such reasoning, I’ve scanned blogs, checked in on publications catering to fiscal conservatives, and broached the question with friends. I’ve also happily made the acquaintance of Jeff Polet, a scholar, writer, and not-so predictable conservative.

Polet is a political scientist at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and a senior editor of the conservative online journal Front Porch Republic. He provided some evidence for the existence of moral and theological thinking in the deficit-hawk universe. For example, many liberals who speak on budget matters invoke values such as compassion and solidarity. Polet was just as quick to cite other legitimate virtues—temperance and prudence, among them.

“We’re spending money we don’t have,” he told me by phone in an interview I did for Our Sunday Visitor. “The bottom line is that we want a full range of services and we don’t want to pay for them.” He continued, “It’s a combination of greed, intemperance and a kind of luxuriousness. In an older time it would have been called decadence.”

When I asked him who the greedy are, he pointed to “interest groups” that oppose any cuts in programs that affect their constituencies, and fingered the AARP. I’d find it hard to pinpoint the elderly as a glaring source of national greed, not in these plutocratic times, anyway. But let’s stay on this trail.

As I noted previously, perhaps the only well-known moral claim on the fiscal right is a generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. Polet, a Catholic convert, roots the generational concern more deeply and evocatively in Scriptures. He pointed to the familiar biblical motif of inheritance (as in Genesis — “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac”).

“There’s this idea that parents owe their children an inheritance. You don’t take your inheritance and squander it, to the disadvantage of your own progeny,” said Polet, who chairs the political science department at Hope, an ecumenical Christian institution with Calvinist roots. “And that’s what I see us doing,” he added. “We’ve taken the cultural, financial inheritance we’ve been given, and we’ve squandered it in a lot of ways. So the world that we’re giving our children doesn’t seem to be as well-ordered as the world we inherited, certainly not from a financial viewpoint.”

I asked Polet if there might be another way of looking at the moral question of intergenerational solidarity. Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Or does the “well-ordered world” also need to include good schools, a solid infrastructure and a clean environment — which would require public investment now?

All that is part of a balanced way of looking at fiscal obligations, Polet acknowledged. “But if the debt problem gets too out of control, it’s going to make all those other things impossible,” he argued, falling back on a much-debated policy point (that our debt is unsustainable).

The Real Surprise

This will do, as a moral and religious case for fiscal hawkishness (and of course Polet has much more to say in his own writings). I didn’t come across much of that elsewhere—even among theocons, conservative religious types. I was unimpressed, for instance, by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” which barely even try to root policy assertions in moral or theological soil. The same goes for something called Christians for a Sustainable Economy, a largely evangelical ad hoc group that seems more ideological than biblical.

But Polet’s attention to moral and biblical foundations is not really what surprised me. I assumed that at some point I’d run into such thoughts among deficit foes. What I found intriguing were a few of his policy conclusions.

Here’s one: After arguing like many conservatives for scaling back Medicare, Polet added—“At this point, America would be better off going to a single-payer system.” The single payer, of course, would be the government, as national health insurer. He thinks this radical approach might be the only way to control healthcare costs in the future.

Needless to say, principled liberals have been making this particular case for quite some time. But I’ve never heard it from a conservative—maybe not even from a centrist. That gives me hope for a richer and less predictable dialogue on budgets and values. …read more

“What the Hell’s the Presidency for?”

On Monday of this week, the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, formally apologized to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for what the police did not do in May 1961—protect Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders who arrived at the city’s Greyhound Bus station and were summarily beaten by a white mob. The day before the ceremony (the first time anyone had ever apologized to him for that particular thrashing, the congressman noted), Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and 5,000 others joined in an annual reenactment of the 50-mile March from Selma, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. On that occasion 48 years ago, state troopers took a less passive approach and brutalized Lewis and others themselves. A few days before the reenactment, President Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks that will stand permanently in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, making her the first African American women to be so honored.

One name that doesn’t figure notably in these various commemorations is that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it should. At least that’s my feeling after reading Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power, the latest in his magnificent series of Johnson biographies. The writer makes it clear that Johnson wasn’t just a pragmatic politician who acceded to the prophetic demands for action on civil rights. LBJ made it happen, partly out of a visceral identification with the “dispossessed of the earth,” as Caro puts it.

True, there probably wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not that year, anyway) if Parks had lost her nerve on the bus in Montgomery, in 1955, and given up her seat to the white passenger, or if King hadn’t led his nonviolent warriors into the streets of Birmingham in 1963. And the same goes for the Selma marchers and the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court now seems poised to undo). But it’s also true that civil rights legislation was heading nowhere in the administration of the Brothers Kennedy.

JFK and RFK meant well, once they decided to push a bill of that kind. But they didn’t fully grasp what Johnson saw, which is that powerful southern lawmakers would be able to slam the breaks on civil rights, just as they had blocked other liberal domestic reforms ever since the late 1930s. A new strategy was needed to break open the dams of progressive legislation.

Dixie Democrats, in union with sympathetic Republicans, had perfected the art of legislative hostage taking in Congress. They would stall a critical piece of legislation, such as an appropriations bill, or something else that key lawmakers absolutely wanted, until the progressive measure was withdrawn. That’s how they fought off higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, greater federal aid to education, and other initiatives beginning in the Roosevelt administration (after the early-to-mid-thirties onslaughts of New Deal legislation).

When the Kennedy administration decided to press for a civil rights bill, in June 1963, they sent it up to Capitol Hill along with other must-pass items. Johnson, as vice president, had warned against doing exactly that. He had told Kennedy and his senior aides that they needed to shepherd the other bills through the process, before trotting out civil rights.

Relating a conversation between Johnson and Kennedy confidant Ted Sorensen, Caro writes:

He tried to explain to Sorensen how the Senate works: that when the time came for the vote on cloture [halting a filibuster], you weren’t going to have some of the votes you were promised, because senators who wanted civil rights also wanted—needed, had to have—dams, contracts, public works projects for their states, and those projects required authorization by the different Senate committees involved, and nine of the sixteen committees (and almost all of the important ones) were chaired by southerners or by allies they could count on.

The vice president was ignored as usual—frozen out of the administration’s legislative efforts, partly due to the machinations of RFK, who detested him. The Kennedy people thought they understood legislative realities better than the man who had been “the Master of the Senate,” as Caro dubs him, and they proceeded to play straight into the hands of southern tacticians, who bottled up the civil rights bill. Because of that, Kennedy did not live to see progress on that front.

The general wisdom is that his assassination is what galvanized the country behind his legislative program. And, as shown in The Passage of Power (covering the years 1958-1964), Johnson did move at breakneck speed to capitalize on that momentum. At the same time, he resisted calls to send civil rights to Congress right away, together with other bills deemed necessary—calls issued by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights heroes. Johnson waited. He kept his eye on the hostage takers, realizing that the best way to thwart them was to not hand them any hostages. He let other bills (appropriations, foreign aid, etc.) pass first. Then he mounted his attack. That’s how civil rights became law in the summer of 1964.

Don’t Leave out Lyndon

Caro points out that many have questioned the sincerity of Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. The author says those people should pay closer attention to words he let out during a meeting with governors at the White House (days after the Kennedy assassination), about why they should fight inequality and injustice: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.”

Note the “Johnsons in Johnson City,” Texas, where he grew up. Caro analyzes:

He had lumped them all together—Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals and Johnsons—which meant that, in his own heart at least, he was one of them: one of the poor, one of the scorned, one of the dispossessed of the earth, one of the Johnsons in Johnson City. What was the description he had given on other occasions of the work he had done in his boyhood and young manhood? “Nigger work.” Had he earned a fair wage for it? “I always ordered the egg sandwich, and I always wanted the ham and egg.” Nor was it financial factors alone that accounted for his empathy for the poor, for people of color—for the identification he felt with them. Respect was involved, too—respect denied because of prejudice.

Caro continues, relating what President Johnson said as he further reflected on his experiences as a young man teaching impoverished Mexican American children near San Antonio:

He had “swore then and there that if I ever had the power to help those kids I was going to do it.” And now, he was to say, ‘I’ll let you in on a secret. I have the power.” “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Lyndon Johnson is not known as one of the prophetic personalities of the civil rights era, and shouldn’t be. It was King and others who shaped the vision (in King’s case, of a “beloved community”) and expanded the realm of the possible, which enabled the “Master of the Senate” to work his legislative magic. Still, it’s hard to picture a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 without LBJ as well as MLK on history’s stage at that moment. That ought to be recognized more often than it is.

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

Sequestering the Moral Questions

On the eve of sequestration—the indiscriminate federal budget cuts—various interests are aiming to capture the moral high ground of the debate over government spending. Which raises the question: What exactly is the moral argument for slashing deficits and balancing budgets?

I’m very familiar with moral and religious appeals against budget cuts, particularly those affecting the poor. This week, for example, nearly 100 religious leaders issued a public appeal for Congress and the president to leave anti-poverty programs off the chopping block, declaring—“God calls for protection of poor and vulnerable people.”

Less clear is the moral case in favor of the meat ax. Yes, deficit hawks will deploy the language of moral responsibility, especially with regard to future generations that are allegedly endangered by government spending today. But these appeals are seldom grounded in moral and biblical principles such as solidarity, human dignity, and our collective obligations to “the least of these.” It’s mainly liberals (of a spiritual sort) who trade in such precepts.

On the right, perhaps the most identifiable moral claim is the generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. There’s room for debate about how unreasonable that burden will be, and whether fiscal austerity right now, in the midst of a still-undernourished economy, is a smart way to deal with the problem.

But there are larger questions about the generational argument. For example: Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Do our children also need good schools to get them started on their paths? Are we going to hand them a public infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that isn’t crumbling all around them? And what about environmental protection—one of our most profound obligations to generations yet unborn?

All of that requires public investment now, and has to be balanced with the goal of easing the debt burden.

I’ll keep watch for moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books, and speak with some thoughtful fiscal conservatives on that score. I’ll report on those sightings and conversations before the next partisan crisis—which is due in late March, when the government runs out of money. …read more

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