What’s wrong with Congress? Or is it the rest of us …

In a short yet poignant column in the Washington Post Robert J. Samuelson questions the typical assumption that the problem with Congress is that it is too beholden to money. Instead, he suggests, its problem is that it is too beholden to the masses, including the poor, but especially the middle class. Politicians are crippled by their fear of us, the voters.

Despite the antics of academics, media, and leftie pastors like Jim Wallis, and despite the complaints of Occupy Wall Street, the poor have not done so poorly in recent decades:

Recently, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, testified before the House Budget Committee on the growth of the 10-largest “means tested” federal programs that serve people who qualify by various definitions of poverty. Here’s what Haskins reported: From 1980 to 2011, annual spending on these programs grew from $126 billion to $626 billion (all figures in inflation-adjusted “2011 dollars”); dividing this by the number of people below the government poverty line, spending went from $4,300 per poor person in 1980 to $13,000 in 2011. In 1962, spending per person in poverty was $516.

Of course, it must quickly be said that care for the poor is not the problem:

And programs for the poor pale beside middle-class transfers. The giants here are Social Security at $725 billion in 2011 and Medicare at $560 billion. Combine all this spending — programs for the poor, Social Security and Medicare — and the total is nearly $2.1 trillion. That was about 60 percent of 2011 non-interest federal spending of $3.4 trillion.

So the problem is not the rich and it is not the poor. It is not class warfare at all. The problem is you, the middle class, the vast majority of Americans. The media doesn’t talk about this because the media knows who are the audience on which it depends, and most in the media are themselves middle class. Still not convinced? After seeing how much the poor and the middle class receive, note how much the wealthy pay:

It’s true that their lobbyists and lawyers sometimes win lucrative tax breaks, subsidies or regulatory preferences. But as the spending numbers show, their influence is exaggerated, especially considering their tax burden. The richest fifth of Americans pay nearly 70 percent of federal taxes (included in this group, the richest 10 percent pay 55 percent), estimates the CBO.

One often hears liberals complain about how the poor are forgotten and marginalized, and one hears conservatives complain just as often about how the government over-taxes us and “steals” our own hard-earned money. But it is far too easy to pin the guilt on some nefarious villain. The real problem with American democracy, as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Alexis de Tocqueville all warned, is the people’s inability to govern themselves:

More promises were made than can be kept without raising taxes, which — for the most part — were also subject to bipartisan promises against increases. Almost everyone agrees that massive budget deficits pose a long-term economic threat, though no can be precise about how or when the threat might emerge. A central question about our political system is whether, after decades of making more promises to more groups, it can withdraw some promises to minimize the threat.

So far, the answer is “no.” Political leaders don’t lead. They take the path of least resistance, which has been to do little except to find scapegoats — “the rich,” “special interests,” “liberals,” “conservatives” — that arouse their supporters’ angriest antagonisms. It helps explain polarization. This is really what Washington does. It’s a demoralizing commentary on the state of American democracy.

Were the philosophers right? Can people not govern themselves? Is America simply a shooting star, bright for a few centuries, then collapsing amid the inevitable tendencies of human nature?

As Christians I do think it is possible for us to believe in the ability of human beings who were created in the image of God to take dominion over the Creation to govern themselves. At the same time, this is sheer utopia if not accompanied by an understanding of the way in which human depravity renders that God-given ability so fragile. That’s why we have government in the first place. But if we are to continue our national experiment in using government to channel human beings’ God-given call to self-government, we need to recover perspective on what is so threatening to our common good. Samuelson’s article, I believe, sets us down that road.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on April 30, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What’s wrong with Congress? Or is it the rest of us ….

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