Category Archives: Welfare State

Good News for the Poor: John Calvin and Social Justice

When John Calvin became pastor in Geneva most Protestant churches didn’t have deacons responsible for caring for the poor. In the medieval church the diaconate had become an office with largely liturgical responsibilities. Most Reformed churches, following Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, assumed it was the state’s responsibility—not the church’s—to care for the poor.

Calvin decisively rejected all of these views. Identifying the church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom, Calvin insisted that the church must witness to the justice and righteousness of Christ’s kingdom in its own way, in accordance with Christ’s commands. This meant that, as one of the church’s essential ministries, it had to call men and women to serve in the spiritual office of deacon.

Image result for good news for the poor getty

Calvin, like other Christians before him, believed God has given the earth and its resources to human beings. As those made in the image of God, we’re called to share our resources and serve one another. Calvin often used the language of rights to describe this principle. A person is defrauded, he argued, when a need is left unmet by someone with the power to meet it.

Caring for the poor, then, isn’t a requirement of charity but of justice, a basic demand of natural law. God is the “protector and patron of the poor,” Calvin says, the one who hears their cries and “feels himself injured in their persons.” Therefore, he won’t let their afflictions remain unavenged.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

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Christianity and the Free Market

In recent decades Christian theologians and ethicists have raised a host of objections against capitalism. From Gustavo Gutierrez’s Marxist-influenced liberation theology to John Milbank’s neoplatonic Christian socialism, the academic tendency is to blame the free market for the curses of individualism, greed, materialism, commercialism, and exploitation. Christianity is the religion that proclaims good news to the poor and woe to the rich, Gutierrez reminds us. And while the great theologians of the past wrestled with the implications of Christian teaching for just lending, fair prices, appropriate wages, and distributive justice, Milbank and others point out, today Christians too often simply resign themselves to the ruthlessness and impersonality of the market.

There is some truth to these claims, of course. Many Christians, especially American Christians, do seem to think that a laissez-faire government approach to economics, absolute property rights, and freedom of contract is pretty much all that Christianity has to say about political economy. And there certainly is a need for much greater self-criticism among Christians about our own infatuation with materialism, security, and the American dream. But if conservative Christians tend to err in the direction of selling out Christian theology in subservience to (classical) liberal economic and political theory, the theologians on the left are often guilty of erring in the opposite direction, ignoring economic reality in the name of theological purity.

The reality, of course, is that for all of the problems associated with free market capitalism, this economic system has lifted more people out of poverty – giving them at least the opportunity for a fuller human flourishing – than has any system of political redistribution or religious charity in the history of the world.

A few statistics about economic development help to tell the story. For most of history the vast majority of human beings have lived their lives at or below a very bare subsistence standard of living. In the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, for instance, this was true of some 60% of the population. Over the many centuries of history up to the 19th, average economic growth ranged between 0.05% and 0.15%, while average life expectancy rarely exceeded 36 years. In 1820 average incomes in the world in contemporary U.S. dollars were about $1,050 (in Europe they were less than twice that, at $1,950).

Today, of course, virtually no one in the West experiences genuine poverty and average annual growth rates top 1.5%. General life expectancy hovers around 80 years and average income in the United States is around $43,200. More people may have escaped poverty in the last generation in India and China alone, due to those countries only half-hearted embrace of free market principles, than in the entirety of human history preceding.

What is the reason for such prosperity in the past two hundred years? In simple terms the answer is simply economic growth. As late as the 17th Century the idea that wealth can be expanded, that property and money are fundamentally productive, and that the earth has the capacity of supporting an ever increasing population at an ever rising standard of living was alien to the assumptions of theologians and men of the world alike. Material wealth was viewed as a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain was inevitably another person’s loss. The power, honor, prestige and citizenship of the few, philosophers from Aristotle to those of the antebellum American South assumed, depends on the labor of the many.

Free market capitalism changed the game entirely, unleashing the forces of productivity and trade by means of the division of labor, supply and demand, and competitive markets. New technology, largely spurred by economic forces, maximized the production and movement of goods and services to levels earlier generations would have consigned to fantasy or the miraculous. Longer lives, better education, and improved health have both resulted from and contributed to this progress. They have made possible political and cultural systems built on representation, equality, and freedom, all of which redirect their beneficiaries back into the system of economic growth and prosperity.

One would expect that the basic realities represented by this bare sketch of the data would temper the criticisms Christian theologians so often launch at free market capitalism. It is all fine and good to say that property is a post-fall institution, that human beings were made to have all things in common, and that economics based on self-interest or greed represent the way of the world rather than that of Christ. But if Christians are serious about walking in genuine love toward our neighbors, surely we can only do so by recognizing that the world is fallen, that we cannot yet live as we one day will in the kingdom of God, and that people should be motivated for their own sakes, if not for the sake of others, to live productive and responsible lives. To put it another way, if we are serious not simply about symbolically helping the poor, but about actually helping the poor, the success of the free market in the modern world, unimaginable only a few centuries ago, must bear some normative weight.

That does not mean we should abandon all Christian and moral reasoning about economics, which was the result of much of the laissez-faire economic thinking during the 1800s. The social teaching of the Catholic church since the late 19th Century is an excellent model here. The Catholic tradition embraces basic free market principles expressive of the values of human dignity and prosperity, while at the same time calling for the moderation of the free market via laws that protect the poor and the weak and uphold basic principles of justice and solidarity.

There is a way forward here, a path to consensus that would help to mitigate the political-economic polarization among thoughtful Christians, if not of American society generally. The left stresses its concern for the poor while the right stresses the liberty necessary for prosperity. But if the two actually go hand in hand, then so much of our political and economic conflict is off the mark. The free market may not always function perfectly, and it needs to be regulated and supplemented with basic social welfare, but it is nevertheless necessary and must be protected, both from corruption and from state manipulation, if the poor are to be helped. The question is, will we figure this out before it is too late?

Public Justice for the Poor: A Response to Timothy Terrell

At Economics for Everybody, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s website for “Applying Biblical Principles to Work, Wealth, and the World,” Timothy Terrell has written a three part response (here, here, and here to my discussion of the relation between property rights and the rights of the poor (here, here, and here). Terrell agrees with my criticism of the sort of libertarianism that views government taxation as theft, but he rejects my argument that the Christian political theological tradition recognizes that the poor have rights to basic necessities enforceable by civil government. He sums up my argument as follows:

[I]f the poor have not received sufficient charity from those who are able to give, the civil magistrate should (as a last resort, he grants) tax them and transfer the proceeds to the needy.

In fact, I believe the (deserving) poor have the right to sustenance as a matter of justice, not simply of charity. Further, I would view redistributive welfare policies as merely one possible means of the government’s enforcing this element of justice, and not by any stretch the best means. My argument (despite Terrell’s suggestion on this point) is not that government should usurp the role of civil society, but that it should ensure that at a most basic level, civil society is operating justly.

Terrell repeatedly declares that my arguments are those of the “political left” or “Christian left,” seemingly assuming that this will render my argument illegitimate for his typical readers. But his readiness to wave flags and call us to our partisan allegiances, in contrast to my attempt to think through the perspective of the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition, leads him to ignore the actual substance of that argument.

For instance, Terrell rightly insists that simply because someone has a duty to do something does not mean that government has the authority to enforce that duty. This is a distinction I have made repeatedly on this blog. The difference between the moral law and the civil law is foundational to political liberty, religious liberty, and Christian liberty alike. Yet Terrell seems to assume that this distinction in and of itself proves that government has no obligation to protect the rights of the poor to have their basic necessities met. He writes,

If “justice” is about making sure that rights are protected, we should be careful in thinking about who has a right to what. Are all rights to be enforceable by the sword of the civil magistrate? …

Where do those responsibilities end? Does the civil magistrate have power to enforce (with the sword) every positive duty of families and churches?

While a person with the ability to give has a moral obligation to do so, this is different from a poor person having a legal right to the assets of a rich person.

Of course, I agree. But this is not an argument, it is simply a statement of principles. Terrell goes on,

So, even if those with means to give charitably do not do so, this is a long way from showing that the civil magistrate has a right to extract wealth from them by force and transfer it to the poor. As R.C. Sproul, Jr. has pointed out in another post, true compassion is done voluntarily, with one’s own resources, not resources forcibly extracted from others. Unfortunately, the twisting of the terms “justice” and “protection” clouds this truth, as wealth transfers become (in the Left’s view) just another part of the civil magistrate’s legitimate pursuit of “justice” or “protection” for the poor.

Here Terrell is stating his position but he is not really making an argument. He is refusing to admit that the poor have rights to basic sustenance or that the obligation of others to assist the poor is a matter of justice, insisting on describing it as charity. His basis for this refusal seems to be Sproul’s point that true compassion is voluntary, not coerced. But of course we are not talking about true compassion, but about public justice. A comment on the nature of true compassion tells us nothing more about the form that the civil law should take than does the teaching of Jesus that truly refraining from murder requires loving our neighbor from the heart. Morality and civil law, as Terrell has pointed out, are not the same thing. Pointing to what Scripture says about poor relief and compassion in the church and in the sanctified lives of believers is insufficient when we are discussing the obligations of the state.

Terrell falls into the same confusion when he discusses Calvin’s position. Appealing to Calvin’s commentary on the Law he writes, “Calvin indicates that giving to the poor is to remain a voluntary act, not coerced by anyone.” Terrell rightly comments that Calvin rejected the position he associated with the Anabaptists, which called for the abolition of property, because Calvin believed Christians are to hold all things in common as a matter of voluntary fellowship, not as a matter of civil law. Yet he oddly assumes that this means Calvin thought the government had no obligation to use public property to assist the poor. Here he quotes François Dermange, who argues that Calvin

explicitly distinguishes this religious interpretation of justice from legal and political justice. God summons consciences to appear before his judgment seat, not before an earthly judge, and hence one must say that this law is ‘spiritual.’

So now Terrell does appeal to the distinction between true justice and political justice in order to say that the government should not ensure that the needs of the poor are met. Care for the poor is a matter of conscience, not of public order. Yet here he misses Calvin’s distinction between the virtue of Christian poor relief and the outward political order of poor relief. This despite his own admission that in Calvin’s Geneva the civil government funded and regulated not only the work of the church, but the tasks of education and poor relief as well. Calvin clearly supported Geneva’s policy: In his commentary on Isaiah 49:23 and in a sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he explicitly called government to use public funds to establish poor-houses, hospitals, and schools.

The relevant distinction is not between charity (love) and justice, which in ordinary Scriptural usage have the same basic content (to love someone is to treat them justly; to treat someone justly is to treat them in accord with love; the justice/righteousness of the law is summarized in the command to love one’s neighbor). The relevant distinction is between the true or inward justice that arises from the heart and the minimal or outward public order of justice that the state is obligated to uphold. The right of the poor to have their minimal outward necessities met clearly falls under the latter. It is a distortion of Calvin’s (two kingdoms) distinction between spiritual and political righteousness to insist that it falls exclusively under the former.

The real question is on what basis Terrell and others claim that the government must force citizens to honor contracts and abstain from murdering one another, while insisting that it may not force those with surplus resources to meet the most basic needs of the poor. I understand how this argument arises from certain classical liberal (or libertarian) premises about the state. I do not believe it is consistent with Christian political theology.

But what of the slippery slope argument? If government has the obligation of making sure the most basic needs of the (deserving) poor are met, will this not lead to intrusive regulation of every part of our lives? One may as well push the slippery slope argument further. If government has the responsibility to enforce justice at all, how do we stop it from seeking to enforce all justice?

The solution, however, is not government abandoning its most basic responsibilities, out of fear that it will abuse its legitimate power. The solution is in the never-ending work of getting government power right, finding the appropriate balance between liberty and justice, the individual and the society, rights and responsibilities. We don’t have to go from one extreme to the other.

Obama’s hard turn to the left – and its high cost to the country

I’m convinced that most Americans were willing to support President Obama in a bipartisan approach to solving America’s major problems in 2013, even if that required taking off the gloves when it came to intransigent Republicans unwilling to compromise. But is the nation going to be as supportive of the president if he presses a hard-left agenda on the country, stepping down from the moral high ground of bipartisanship? CNN’s chief political analyst David Gergen writes:

On the other side of the aisle, many Republicans such as Eric Cantor were respectful of the president after his address but underneath most of them were bristling. They had expected the president to issue a ritualistic plea for bipartisanship and then to begin negotiating with them over federal deficits.

Instead, he made it clear that he will work with them as long as they agree with him and try to run over them if they resist. From the GOP perspective, Obama was virtually dismissive of the nation’s fiscal threats and wasn’t interested in true negotiations. In a tweet after the speech, scholar Ian Bremmer captured their view of Obama’s message to the GOP: “Together, we shall pursue my objectives.”

In short, the divisions in Washington may grow even deeper in the near term, if that is possible, and no one knows what will actually be accomplished.

The harder line the president pushes, the more supportive Americans are going to be of Republicans who refuse to compromise. And even liberals are surprised at just how hard a line Obama took in his second inaugural address.

Certainly the most worrisome implication of Obama’s new stance is the unlikelihood of real progress being made on the nation’s unsustainable deficit spending, and its even more unsustainable commitments in the way of health care and entitlements. Gallup’s study of poll averages indicates that Obama is presiding over an America more polarized than at any point in its post World War II history, with the sole exception of George W. Bush’s fourth year in office. That doesn’t bode well for the sort of compromise we need moving forward.

Most Polarized Presidential Approval Ratings, by Party

But The Economist – seemingly in doubt about its decision to endorse Obama for reelection this past year – questions whether the president even cares.

[I]t seems clear that resolving America’s deficit problems is not high on the president’s list of priorities. In fact he mentioned the deficit only once, about halfway in, and qualified that mention by immediately noting that “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

To a fiscal conservative, that is precisely why the deficit is out of control: continuing to invest for the future, without scaling back the commitments that have been made to the retired, is a conflict that can only be resolved by big tax increases (which Mr Obama himself, as well as the Republicans, have already ruled out) or by everlasting deficits. Choices do, in fact, have to be made.

Senior Republicans now believe that Mr Obama has never been serious about tackling the cost of entitlements, the mandatory categories of expenditure that principally cover pensions and health insurance for the elderly, as well as health care for the very poor. Yet if benefit cuts are off the table, and further tax rises are as well (the Republicans agreed to tax rises worth around $600 billion over ten years on January 1st, in order to avert the fiscal cliff, and they now say no further tax rises can be considered), then the idea of any new bargain seems remote.

CNN and The Economist aren’t exactly hard right publications, enamored with uncompromising Congressional Republicans or ideological Tea Party activists. Indeed, given that conservatives have never trusted Obama, and are not likely to be surprised as he shows his “true colors,” it is increasingly those Americans (and foreign observers) who identify solidly with the pragmatism of middle-of-the-road politics who are most put off (and in some cases, having defended the president, even embarrassed) by this unabashedly ideological approach to politics. What ever happened to that Change Obama was going to bring to Washington, the new kind of politics that so energized and inspired the president’s supporters in 2008? If there has been any change, it seems, it has been for the worse.

Giving Handouts to the Rich

From The American Prospect:

new report from Smart Growth America, a national coalition that fights sprawl, looks at 50 federal programs that deal with housing and real estate. In total, the federal government spends around $450 billion each year on such programs, counting tax breaks, loans and loan guarantees, and direct investment in real-estate projects….

Who benefits the most from the messiness? Surprise: the rich. For instance, the biggest tax-expenditure program for housing is the Mortgage Interest Deduction, which allows people to deduct payments on their mortgage interest on their taxes. Created in 1913, the MID costs an average of $80 billion annually, and it’s supposed to help families buy a primary home. But 30 percent of the households claiming the deduction claim it on a second home—like, say, a vacation home. Lower-income families have a harder time claiming the deduction, because it requires itemized taxes.

The rich also get a hand when it comes to housing subsidies. Those who make more than $200,000 get, on average, $6,300. For those who make between $30,000 and $40,000, the number drops to only $265.

This is only further evidence that soaring deficits are not the result of America’s safety net, nor the fault of America’s poor.

Avoiding “conservative” radicalism: Walter Russell Mead on the Blue Social Model

If you are interested in the future of the American welfare state and American democracy – i.e., if you want to think carefully about the future of life in this country – Walter Russell Mead’s writing on the decline of the blue model is a must read. As he reports on Via Meadia,

The “death of blue” theme has gotten a lot of attention. Hundreds of thousands of readers have come to these posts, and they’ve been discussed widely in the blogosphere and in print.

Mead’s prose is clear, readable, and gets to the point. More importantly, it represents a broadly conservative, yet helpfully pragmatic perspective on American society, its changing institutions and its evolving possibilities, that provides conservatives with a genuine alternative to utopian attitudes of libertarianism or reconstructionism. And it is now carefully summarized at the American Interest in one well-written summary article. Read it.

Mead argues that what he calls America’s “blue social model” is dying, by which he means that

the characteristic form of 20th century industrial democracy has come unglued, and that the advanced industrial democracies around the world must adjust to basic changes in the way the world works….

Briefly, the idea is that after World War II America was organized around a group of heavily regulated monopoly and semi-monopoly companies. AT&T was the only telephone company; there were three big networks, three big car companies and so on. There was very little foreign competition, and these companies were able to offer stable, lifetime employment to most of their workers. The workforce was heavily unionized, and the earnings of the big companies were divided between shareholders, managers, workers and government in a predictable way. An intellectual and administrative class of planners, social scientists and managers ran the big institutions and administered the government.

Several forces came together to break up this system. Foreign competition, first from rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II and then from low wage newly industrializing countries around the world, eroded the market position of companies like the Big Three auto manufacturers. The rise of offshore banking eroded the tight financial controls of the postwar era. Growing consumer impatience with the high prices and poor quality offered by monopoly companies like the telephone monopoly led to political pressure to deregulate and introduce more competition. Technological change, especially in information processing and communications, led to disruptive changes that shifted the advantage to nimble and lean companies and left the bureaucratic, slow moving giants of the Blue Age behind. American society became increasingly individualistic, with both the left and the right rebelling against the authority of experts and bureaucrats.

Unlike many in America today, whether on the right or the left, Mead is not pessimistic about America’s future. The United States, he argues consistently, maintains solid economic, political, social, military, and environmental advantages over other countries. Yet the land of the pilgrims and pioneers needs to figure out how to adjust its institutions and policies – as we always have in the past – corresponding to a rapidly evolving world, yet in a manner faithful to American ideals.

What future does Mead propose?

The first thing to say about a post-blue social model is that it will be liberal. That is to say it will be a further exercise the development of the concept of “ordered liberty” that has been the guiding light of Anglo-American civilization since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The synthesis of enlightened, forward looking governance resting on the acknowledged and inalienable liberties of the people at the heart of the liberal vision remains the best foundation humanity has yet found for running a society in a world of rapid change.

At the heart of the enduring liberal ideal is a truth that is often forgotten in today’s political debates: the relationship between order and liberty does not have to be zero sum. More government can mean less freedom, and more freedom can mean less government—but things don’t always work out that way….

The secret of Anglo-American civilization has been its ability to combine the two elements of order and liberty at successively higher levels of both. To think constructively about our future we shouldn’t be thinking about a zero sum tradeoff between order and freedom; we should be thinking about how to build the kind of order that extends our liberty in new and important ways.

Mead’s take on the liberal project is profoundly conservative. In a time when some conservatives, including Christian conservatives, are becoming increasingly jaded with the idea of liberal democracy, his perspective reminds us that genuine conservatism is respectful both of the past and of the present. It gives the benefit of the doubt to the social order as it exists – the legacy of the past – while calling for necessary changes that are gradual, that are morally, economically, and politically appropriate, and that do not disrupt the legitimate social fabric. This is in sharp contrast to the sorts of “conservatism” that owe more to the legacy of revolutionary radicalism, whether in their libertarian dreams of dismantling American government or in their theocratic hopes of turning America into the kingdom of God.

If you haven’t done so, go read Mead’s essay.

Spoiling your children, and the decline of civil society

It turns out that spoiling kids, as our grandmothers told us, is actually bad for them. It’s also bad for civil society. It’s one thing financially to assist your children as they move through the stages of life, all the while training them in their work ethic, responsibility, and healthy ambition. It’s a whole other thing to teach them that they are the center of the world, the deserving beneficiaries of their parents (and their society’s) largesse.

Here are two bits of evidence (HT: Via Meadia). First, researchers have reported in Science that China’s one child policy has not been good for the character of the country’s youth.

We document that China’s One-Child Policy, one of the most radical approaches to limiting population growth, has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals.

Walter Russell Mead writes,

It’s been pointed out many times before that the ranks of only children are large and growing, and that they are outnumbered by, and thus hard pressed to care for, parents and grandparents. Now we find that they are also less inclined to follow the Confucian tradition’s dictates of respect and responsibility for one’s elders. Indeed, this is why the leadership has already enacted laws forcing selfish children to visit their parents regularly or face legal consequences.

The Second bit of evidence? The New York Times reports that students whose parents pay for their college education perform much less well academically.

Dr. [Laura] Hamilton suggested that students who get a blank check from their parents may not take their education as seriously as others.

“Oddly, a lot of the parents who contributed the most money didn’t get the best returns on their investment,” she said. “Their students were more likely to stay and graduate, but their G.P.A.’s were mediocre at best, and some I didn’t see study even once. I wondered if that was nationally true, which led me to this quantitative study, which found that it is.”

Again, Mead comments,

It’s hardly a surprise that 18-year-olds will take advantage of a fully subsidized four-year adventure through parties, booze, and whatever other joys college brings. Keeping young people in a bubble where they don’t have to work for their own money (and by work we don’t mean cushy internships) is a form of child abuse, depriving kids of the character and capability-building experiences they need to become responsible and effective adults.

Of course, by analogy we might draw some national and social implications from this. I’ll leave that to you wise readers.

Following Europe’s Decline: The Dismal Failure of America’s Government

The United Kingdom based magazine The Economist, which endorsed Barack Obama for president last year, had this to say about the fiscal cliff deal:

The tax deal enacted this week, which leaves income-tax rates where they are for 99% of households while raising them sharply on the top 1%, was indeed a political victory for Mr Obama. For the first time in more than two decades Republicans had voted for higher taxes, by large numbers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The deal raised almost as much money from the rich as Mr Obama had first sought, and he made no meaningful concessions on spending in return.

It was less of a victory for the economy. It leaves in place significant short-term fiscal tightening, while doing almost nothing to arrest the escalating national debt in the long term. Mr Obama himself conceded that at the White House: “We still have deficits that have to be dealt with,” he said, surely his understatement of the year.

The problem with the fiscal deal is not so much what the bill accomplishes. Most Americans support higher federal income taxes on the richest 1% of taxpayers, and Congress earns praise for making most of President Bush’s tax cuts permanent. It was for this reason that former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan joined most of his fellow partisans in the Senate and many in the House in voting for the bill. In a statement explaining his vote Ryan declared,

Will the American people be better off if this law passes relative to the alternative? In the final analysis, the answer is undoubtedly yes. I came to Congress to make tough decisions — not to run away from them.

I think Ryan made the right decision in terms of the vote itself. But fellow rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio, one of the few Republican senators to vote against the bill, explained his vote in terms of lost opportunity. As the New York Times reports,

Mr. Rubio, in a statement explaining his vote, warned that “rapid economic growth and job creation will be made more difficult under the deal reached here in Washington.” He added: “This deal just postpones the inevitable, the need to solve our growing debt crisis and help the 23 million Americans who can’t find the work they need.”

In the final analysis Congress’s handling of the fiscal crisis, as well as that of President Obama, has been nothing less than abysmal. In the Washington Post Robert Samuelson highlights the inability of Congress to cut spending by pointing to the perpetuation, year after year, of annual subsidies for farmers in the territory of $10-15 billion. Such subsidies made sense in days when farmers faced unusually crippling economic and environmental uncertainty as well as market exploitation in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Today, as my own friends involved in farming confirm, the subsidies are largely unnecessary handouts. Samuelson concludes,

Farm subsidies are a metaphor for our larger predicament. We no longer have the luxury — as we did for decades — of carrying marginal, ineffectual or wasteful programs. We can no longer afford subsidies for those who don’t need them or, at least, don’t need so many of them (including affluent Social Security and Medicare recipients). If we can’t eliminate the least valuable spending, then we will be condemned to perpetually large deficits, huge tax increases or indiscriminate cuts in many federal programs, the good as well as the bad.

What makes all of this most disturbing is how similar the United States’s handling of its fiscal problems is to the recent record of the European Union. Though the problems are different, in both cases, politicians repeatedly pander to short-term fixes while avoiding long-term solutions, even while everyone involved admits that such an approach is unsustainable. We seem to be voluntarily committing ourselves to the laboratory experiment of determining whether or not Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous warnings about the demise of democracy (due to the inability of elected politicians to say no to the demands of the populace, and of unelected bureaucrats to relinquish their own power) are true.

In another article The Economist warily notes just how similar is the track record of the United States and Europe.

For the past three years America’s leaders have looked on Europe’s management of the euro crisis with barely disguised contempt. In the White House and on Capitol Hill there has been incredulity that Europe’s politicians could be so incompetent at handling an economic problem; so addicted to last-minute, short-term fixes; and so incapable of agreeing on a long-term strategy for the single currency.

Those criticisms were all valid, but now those who made them should take the planks from their own eyes. America’s economy may not be in as bad a state as Europe’s, but the failures of its politicians—epitomised by this week’s 11th-hour deal to avoid the calamity of the “fiscal cliff”—suggest that Washington’s pattern of dysfunction is disturbingly similar to the euro zone’s in three depressing ways.

The Economist rightly argues that Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the flawed fiscal deal, and that contrary to the view of some, the problem is not that politicians are insufficiently principled but that they are too unwilling to compromise in order to achieve the most important goals.

Viewed through anything other than a two-month prism, it was an abject failure. The final deal raised less tax revenue than John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, once offered during the negotiations, and it included none of the entitlement reforms that President Barack Obama was once prepared to contemplate…. Democrats pretend that no changes are necessary to Medicare (health care for the elderly) or Social Security (pensions). Republican solutions always involve unspecified spending cuts, and they regard any tax rise as socialism.

There is only one way to prevent the deceptively slow-burning fuse of America’s debt from ending in calamity. Both sides need to remember that they represent the whole country, not just their relative ideological constituencies. Our goal is not to build the kingdom of God, whether as liberals or conservatives understand that kingdom. No one is going to get all of what they want here. We’re just trying to sustain the economic and political stability of the United States of America.

Conservative special pleading on taxes: charitable giving

I don’t know whether or not we’ll be diving over the fiscal “cliff” in the next few days, but one of the discussions that has intrigued me in recent weeks has been the debate over whether or not Congress should preserve the tax deduction for charitable giving. This deduction will expire should Congress do nothing during the next four days, and it could also expire or, more likely, be modified, if Congress does take action.

Conservatives and Republicans love to claim that their policies are more fiscally responsible than are those of the liberals and the Democrats. Conservatives want to reign in spending to reflect tax revenue, they point out, while the Democrats are committed to the unsustainable welfare state. Liberals, on the other hand, note that the Republicans talk the talk but never actually make the hard decisions to cut spending. What recent Republican administration ever maintained a balanced budget?

Part of the problem, of course, is that while virtually everyone agrees that the federal deficit has to be reduced, no one wants to see their own pet projects abandoned. We can all outline a series of programs and initiatives that we think should be jettisoned, but there is no shortage of organizations and lobby groups to explain to us why such reductions in spending would be detrimental to the country. Similarly, when others outline their lists, we are ready with our defense of our own favorite policies.

Thus we have the phenomena of staunch conservatives attacking President Obama and the Democrats for refusing to make hard decisions when it comes to spending cuts, while at the same time adamantly insisting that the deduction for charitable giving has to be maintained. So for instance, Richard Land, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claims that the expiration of the deduction is a “draconian threat to the religious and non-religious charities they [Americans] cherish.”

Land’s concern is about a measure not aimed at charitable deductions per se, but simply attempting to limit the amount of deductions claimable by high earners. In fact, he insists, “By all means we should reduce tax loop holes and extravagant personal deductions.”

But not this loop hole and not this deduction.

At a time of a seemingly ever-expanding, but financially strapped, federal government, why would that government seek to weaken and eviscerate the civil society nonprofits so necessary to act as a gentle buffer between government and individual citizens in need?

The proposal to further cap charitable deductions in the federal tax code is a threat aimed like a dagger at the heart of America’s charitable nonprofit entities, secular and religious. It will weaken most, kill many, and harm all.

Land tends to give in to temptations to escalate his rhetoric in situations like these (he claimed a few months ago that the 2012 election was the most significant in his lifetime). The Christian Examiner reports,

The idea of capping the charitable deduction “is as serious a threat to religious organizations as anything the federal government has done in recent decades,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

As serious as anything? Even the contraception mandate? Even the attempt by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to curtail the “ministerial exception”?

I agree with Land that government needs to foster and protect a strong civil society. I’m not convinced that the survival of such civil society depends on selective treatment from a federal government reeling from its inability to say no to special interests. It is simply not enough to make a good argument that federal support for a particular program or tax break benefits the country and is financially beneficial in the long run. Such arguments can be made about virtually every program or policy. If we have any hope of establishing a just, simple tax code, however, such arguments need to be resisted. Conservatives need to be as ruthless with their own favorite policies as they are with those of the left. They certainly don’t need to be playing the religion card.

In the Washington Post Ken Stern questions the degree to which the tax deduction is an incentive to charitable giving,

People with income in the lowest quintile give a higher percentage of their earnings to charity than do more wealthy Americans. This pattern persists despite the fact that low earners have less disposable income and rarely take advantage of itemized tax deductions for charitable donations. Sure, some contributions are tax-driven: Almost a quarter of online giving occurs in the last two days of the year as taxpayers rush to qualify for deductions. But Americans’ generosity may be more resistant to changes in the tax laws than most people think.

Of course, Stern may be being unduly optimistic here. But in my view it is somewhat irrelevant. Even assuming giving should drop off somewhat, are charitable and religious organizations really as threatened as Land claims? I doubt it. If they have really become so dependent on favorable federal tax policies then the fault is their own for ignoring Rule #1 when it comes to maintaining liberty from government interference: He who controls the purse strings makes the rules …

Who is to blame for the unsustainable expansion of America’s welfare state? – a look at food stamps

Amid all the talk about whether or not President Obama won reelection on the votes of people who simply want handouts from the federal government it is worth paying attention to how America’s safety net actually works. In a fascinating report at National Affairs David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa provide an analysis of just how relief gets to the poor (and not-so-poor) and how it has grown in the past few years. In this post I want to focus in particular on what they say about food aid programs. The major programs in view here are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) ($68 billion in 2010), the school lunch and breakfast program ($14 billion) and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program ($6.7 billion).

The baseline point to note is that food aid programs have in fact dramatically grown under President Obama. Armor and Sousa write:

Between 1992 and 2007, spending on food programs did not vary by more than a few billion dollars, after adjusting for inflation. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on food programs rose from $57 billion in 2007 to $95 billion in 2010 (again, adjusted for inflation), an utterly unprecedented increase of 66%….

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of persons receiving food stamps more than doubled, increasing from 17 million to slightly more than 40 million. Real spending more than tripled during this period, rising from $22 billion to $68 billion.

Map: Percentage of People in each county who receive food stamps, June 2009

What are the reasons for the expansion? Obviously the recession has been a big part of it, but the growth of food aid programs outpaces the growth in the number of persons receiving food aid. The main reason for this is President Obama’s 2009 stimulus program, which purposely sought to increase the benefits received per person.

The expansion of the number of people receiving food aid also owes to factors other than simply the recession.

During the recession of the early 1990s, enrollment increased by several million — understandably, given that the poverty rate rose to 15%, roughly the same as the rate in this most recent recession. But between 2003 and 2007, when the economy was strong and poverty rates were relatively modest, SNAP enrollment nevertheless climbed to 26 million people. And after 2007, enrollment figures skyrocketed — climbing to 33 million people in 2009 and to 40 million in 2010.

Note that enrollment was climbing significantly already during the Bush administration, although the climb became steeper after 2007 owing to the recession. In part we might say that this latter climb simply demonstrates that the program is working. In hard times more poor people are receiving help.

Yet here’s the rub. Much of the increase in food aid programs reflects financial support that is not going to the poor. “Most of the increases in food-stamp participation in the past several years have instead resulted from an increase in benefits going to people above the poverty line” (emphasis added).

As early as 2004, nearly 40% of households receiving food stamps were above the poverty line… [I]n 2010 it reached 48% — nearly half of all households receiving food stamps. The increase in the number of households participating in the food-stamp program is thus being driven disproportionately by households above the poverty line.

Considered in terms of individuals more than half of all food aid recipients are above the poverty line. Most people who receive federal aid are not poor according to the government’s standard of poverty.

Armor Chart 3 Very Small Fall 2012

Just as striking is that most of the people above the poverty line who are receiving aid are well above the poverty line: “Another 7.2 million recipients have incomes between 130% and 200% of the poverty level, and an astonishing 8 million recipients have incomes that are greater than 200% of poverty.”

What’s going on here? In significant part it has to do with the relaxation of “categorical eligibility” rules under the Obama administration. “Categorical eligibility allows states to declare large numbers of families eligible for SNAP without actually going through the SNAP program’s own process for determining eligibility.”

Who are the culprits? It’s not necessarily who you would think and it bears little resemblance to the map of blue states and red states. The states that provide SNAP benefits to families with incomes up to 200% of the poverty line include Montana, North Carolina, and North Dakota, as well as Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. States that provide benefits to families earning up to 160% of the poverty line include deep red Texas and Arizona as well as Connecticut and New Mexico. Perhaps most interesting of all is that staunchly blue New York and California hold standards much stricter than many other states, keeping the eligibility line at 130%.

This makes a big difference. If all states awarded food stamps to individuals up to 200% of the poverty line – which is perfectly permissible under current federal rules, no less than 94.4 million Americans, nearly a third of the nation’s population, would receive food stamps from the federal government.

These numbers suggest that it is categorically wrong to blame the poor – or programs designed to help the poor – for America’s financial problems, or even for the recent growth of the welfare state. In fact, the vast majority of federal dollars redistributed in this country go to segments of the population above the poverty line and even to the middle class, including in particular seniors and veterans.

Republicans should abandon rhetoric critical of the safety net, or of programs designed to help the poor like Medicaid and focus instead on reforming these programs so that they actually help the people they were established to help. Too often Republicans are willing to criticize redistributive programs that benefit typical Democratic constituencies (think of Romney’s 47% comments) but not to criticize those programs that benefit their own favored constituencies (i.e., seniors). This suggests to many people – rightly or wrongly – that they don’t care about the poor. It also suggests that Republicans know how to be Santa Claus just as much as do the Democrats. The divide here is not as much about principle as many conservatives would like to imagine.

Democrats, for their part, need to ask themselves whether they really want America to be a country in which a third of the population is on food stamps. They also need to come to grips with the fact that raising taxes on the rich is not going to put America back on the path to welfare state sustainability. It’s all fine and good to talk about helping the poor and needy, but when it comes down to it it will be the benefits the federal government gives to the middle class that will wreck this country’s budget. It’s time for a serious conversation about what the American welfare state is actually accomplishing.

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