What do you think?
Budgeting for Jesus
Slogans like "Budgets are moral documents" and "What would Jesus cut?" bring confusion and not clarity to our federal budget debates.
A common liberal slogan holds that "budgets are moral documents." Yet this is not literally true. A document cannot be moral anymore than a brick can be entrepreneurial. Morality requires responsibility, and responsibility requires some threshold of agency and understanding. What these commentators and activists mean to say, of course, is not that the documents are moral but that they disclose the morality of the people who made them. Budgets are records of decisions that reflect values and priorities, and the budgeters are morally accountable for these decisions just as they are morally accountable for the virtues and vices that shape them.
This is not semantic nitpicking. The United States—from the federal government to state governments and municipalities, to millions of businesses and families—now staggers under mountains of debt. Wise budgeting is one of the preeminent economic and ethical challenges of the age. Slogans like "Budgets are moral documents" or "What would Jesus cut?" serve more to confuse than to clarify.
Let's imagine a simple budget that directs $20,000 to a soup kitchen, $20,000 to savings, and $60,000 to expenses. Is this budget moral? Who knows? The morality of the budget does not inhere in the document, but depends on the character and context of the budget and its budgeters.
What, for example, is the type of budget? Devoting 60 percent to operating expenses and 20 percent to a soup kitchen is generous for most companies, but not for a charity whose purpose is to support the soup kitchen. We have different moral expectations for different types of budgets. Or what is the source of its funds? Money given voluntarily by investors implies one set of obligations. Money coerced from the poorest of the poor, in order to serve the less poor, changes the moral calculus.
Then there are considerations like the intent of the budget and the effectiveness of the means it employs. If the budgeter gives $20,000 to a soup kitchen, but does so for the sake of political gain, this shades the "morality" of the budget. Or if the budgeter seeks earnestly to benefit the needy, but funds programs that actually worsen their plight, the budgeter may be morally culpable for what he should have known. And any number of contextual factors may also change the moral value of a budget. Is the budget heavily financed by debt? Does it fulfill all its responsibilities? Does it take on responsibilities better left to others? Does it save wisely? If the budget should save $30,000 in order to avoid bankruptcy, then it may be more moral in the short term to give less money to the soup kitchen in order (say) to preserve the company and pay its employees and have the opportunity to continue giving to the soup kitchen for years to come.
Much of this kind of nuance has flown out the window in recent debates over the morality of the federal budget and the most moral way to balance the books. A recent study from the Pew Research Center showed that evangelicals, compared to the general populace, more strongly favored reductions in spending on aid to the world's poor, unemployment, environmental protections, and college financial aid. And evangelicals were more likely to favor increases in spending on the military, crime-fighting, and counter-terrorism.
As usual Allan, you point out where we confuse ourselves with simplistic slogans. You also rightly point out that context is a major key in moral decision making. One of the ways I think about our current debate is to consider all the wealth or assets in the USA, consider the debt, and then consider basic needs like food, shelter, a degree of healthcare. It seems to me that the greatest wealth producing nation in the history of the world should be able to care for the young and old. If we cannot develop the political will to care for our most vulnerable citizens, then no budget will be moral. It took decades to get here and it may take time to get out of our current situation. What is unfortunate is that nobody is offering any serious solutions to the problem as it exists.
I have no doubt that as a society we can do better, but when people say things like we should be able to care for our young and our old, I find that to be vague. So how do we take care of our young and our old?
Don't get me wrong... I believe in caring for "the least of these" but saying a wealthy society should be able to do that, and actually working through the complexities as to how to do that is another thing.
What do you think?
I think that we have done the same old thing for so long that we have forgotten how make new and different priorities. I do not think it is vague to say that everyone in the USA should have enough to live a modest life including basic needs. For the most part, we are not far off of that goal. There are multiple ways to achieve the goal. The first issue that we never seem to grasp is that we have to have the political will to make changes. That we do not have. All the ways to make changes have been heard before. Make the government efficient by reducing redundant programs. Go after fraud. Simplify the tax code to close loopholes and use a graduated rate based upon income. One half of all SS payments made by individuals and employers on behalf of employees should be guaranteed to return to that individual worker or spouse. The other half would be used for other SS benefits. Consider a national sales tax on selected luxury items. End the regressive tax practice of capping SS payments on high incomes. The wealthy should not receive this break. Freeze most spending at current levels. I think people might be more willing to pay higher taxes if they knew that the money was being used to reduce debt. Most people do not want to give more money to be mishandled and misused. The fed. Gov. is too big. A political solution to this problem should begin with a goal of reducing gov. by 10%. How do we force the congress to sit down and rationally go through a process to do this? I do not know. There are many minds much brighter than mine that can sort out better ways to do this. One thing that I think should happen is to place some sort of controls on prices for industries that are out of control. There is no reason for healthcare costs to have climbed this high over this length of time. And I do not think that we should pay high prices for gas everytime there is a hiccup in the middle east. More drilling in the US and building coal gasification plants are needed now. Allan, I have never thought that you did not care for the poor. You have always recognized the profound complexity of the problems we face and the confusion between being moved by someones plight and turning that into a national priority. Your point is well taken. The biggiest move to make is to carefully study our wealth and where it resides. Where did it reside 100 years ago. Bring that forward decade by decade. Look at the patterns. Is there a range of wealth distribution that seems healthiest for the nation? If we can determine that range, can we set goals for our economy to achieve that mix? Does this step interfere too much with a healthy capitalist economy? How do we know? If I were a multimillioniare today, I would not want to give the gov. one more nickle due to the failure of gov to be good stewards of money. But I would want to contribute to the welfare and success of the society. I do that now in a variety of ways, but my economic impact is quite tiny.
A comment. In my conversations with people and my own reading, I have heard people all along the politican spectrum speak of the budget as a moral docuument. And I've seen many times where one side speaks of a budget as the moral document and the other side agrees with that assessment. Of course, as you state Allan, that is where the difference begin to emerge based on the perspective of each.
Gary, good points.
I certainly do believe that a budget reveals moral commitments, but what bothers me is that one side accuses the other of things that the other side simply does not embrace. Liberals accuse conservatives of hating children when they want to cut certain social programs, when conservatives have their own ideas, rightly or wrongly, on how to take care of society's vulnerable children. Conservatives accuse liberals of being weak on security and not caring about the defense of a nation's people because they want to cut the defense budget, when liberals, rightly or wrongly, believe that security can be had for much less money.
The point is that the argument should be about the substance of what to cut and why, not using the moral document argument to accuse the other side of being immoral.
By the way, one's own personal checkbook reveals one's moral commitments as well.
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