The National Catholic Review
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My friends are tired of hearing me bemoan how seldom public discourse ever gets around to addressing substantive issues of justice, such as the shape of public finance and budgeting. So I suppose I ought to be rejoicing that our nation is conducting serious high-level debates about economic priorities: fierce budget battles in Washington; statehouse rallies in Wisconsin in support of beleaguered public-sector unions; deficit hawks wielding the budget axe with a vengeance; Congressional wrangling on debt ceiling extensions.

Sure, I am glad that such matters at least occasionally eclipse celebrity scandals and have maintained a place on the front page alongside the recent crises in Japan and Libya. If I harbor disappointment, it is because so many of our political leaders are getting it all wrong and are endorsing the wrong priorities entirely.

The shape of the current budget debates changes from minute to minute, and there is no way to predict the eventual outcome. Will we avert a government shutdown, or will the reckless game of “chicken” prevent sensible bipartisan compromise? But beyond the ebb and flow of events, a key challenge is to stay in touch with the bedrock ethical principles that should guide any process of social deliberation. Spiritual writers use the phrase id quod volo (“that which I desire”) to capture this task of discerning proper and heartfelt goals. I deeply desire to live in a country that:

1. Does not abandon its poor to starvation, homelessness and destitution. Deficit hawks always seem to circle above the prey of anti-poverty programs, especially those with shadowy names like community services block grants. But the more you know about the crucial assistance they provide to struggling people and neighborhoods, the more eager you will be to exempt these particular heads from the chopping block. Investments in community health centers, job training and early childhood development for disadvantaged groups, through programs like Head Start, will surely in the long run save money for government at all levels. Current proposals to cut them sharply amount to eating our seed corn. Whether we argue from outcomes or from ethics, it is easy to agree with a line from a recent letter from the U.S. bishops’ conference to the Senate: “In a time of economic crisis, poor and vulnerable people are in greater need of assistance, not less.”

2. Protects the rights of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Several cash-strapped states are seeking to limit the influence of public-sector unions. Even some Catholic voices, like the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, are piling on against the unions, demonizing them as impediments to prosperity and justice. To his great credit, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee stepped up to defend the constant tradition of church support for organized labor, writing: “Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” Scapegoating and demonizing organized labor is a sure sign that the drift of public deliberation is turning away from authentic social justice.

3. Maintains a commitment to the least privileged around the world. The slash-and-burn approach to budget-cutting has targeted the already modest funding the United States provides to assist programs crucial for development. Foreign aid makes possible life-saving public health and social service outreach to some of the poorest people on earth. Cut-ting humanitarian aid and international pover-ty-focused development assistance would seriously undermine our nation’s leadership position in the world community. Fighting epidemics and helping people grow subsistence crops are not optional expenditures for a responsible nation, no matter how badly it needs to pinch pennies.

Each of us could compile a much longer list of deep desires, but these three priorities will always be near the top of my list.

Sure, deficits are serious concerns, but the current budget process is heading in a direction that is ethically and practically indefensible. Leaders from both parties appear not to be acting on consistent principles and seem unaware of the real human costs they are imposing through austerity plans. When politicians hide behind the mantra, “We are broke,” I am often tempted to think, “Morally bankrupt may be more like it.”

Thomas Massaro, S.J., teaches social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 4/12/2011 - 9:37am
It is difficult to accept Fr. Massaro's statement that we are "morally bankrupt" and Mike's charge that "we are sick, sick, sick," but whereas "cutting the budget" is a metaphor, cutting the million or so unborn children annually, a third or more courtesy of Planned Parenthood, is not, nor is chemically poisoning them, etc. How else can we describe our world leading elective abortion industry? Morally bankrupt and sick, sick, sick are not exaggerations. It is not a red herring; in truth, it is the Slaughter of the Innocent.
Yet to imply our country shortchanges in the arena of generous compassion, when compared to other nations, does not square too well with the facts. The greatest eleemosynary contribution to Africa in its history was accomplished with our past president's Aids support, saving over a million lives. In Haiti, it was the US that lead the relief effort and provided the most guidance and support. In the current tsunami disaster in Japan, the US has provided a lion's share of help despite the immense distance involved. The Gates's foundation is providing more financial support by itself than the entire annual budget of the World Health Organization. Immense and bold efforts are being made to provide alternatives to our inner city poor to upgrade the failed education we have been providing them.
All sides of the political spectrum agree that we have spent irresponsibly, wastefully in many cases. (As we have seen time and again, most government spending is wasteful and inefficient.) But we don't have a choice. The adjustments will be painful for all involved.
David Smith | 4/9/2011 - 9:46am
"Sure, deficits are serious concerns"

Uh, yes.  If your family is deeply in debt, you're not going to be able to do much good for anyone.  All your resources will be needed to pay off that debt.

In other words, all that money you'd like to use to take care of the poor has already been spent, long ago, on other things.  That's the kind of society we've been living in.  It's time to pay the piper, who will not go away.
NORMA NUNAG | 4/8/2011 - 11:20pm
I am with you wholeheartedly, Mary (#3).   Perhaps if those politicans can experience what it is like to be truly vulnerable: be a homeless person even for a week; suddenly stricken with a horrific ailment with no health insurance; lose everything through natural disasters (tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, etc.) with no savings or insurance to cover loses....maybe, just maybe they would experience and recognize their humanity!   I think it's our understanding and acceptance of our humanity that we begin to understand the concept of social justice and the concept of the common good.
MARY ZIEGLER | 4/8/2011 - 4:36pm
Thank you for this reminder that a people without vision will perish.  May we all work hard with our voices, votes, and hands to protect the most vulnerable among us, to invest in our children, who are our future and our legacy,  and to renew the spirit of generosity in our country. 
Mike Evans | 4/8/2011 - 1:48pm
We are no more broke than ever before. Cut the military budget and end the the useless war adventures and we would have more than enough funding for domestic programs. The funding for abortions is a total red herring as it is prohibited directly by the Hyde amendment and the recent signing statement on health care reform. To now make this the sticking point is to deny any honesty whatsoever. Meanwhile, serious cuts to the safety net for the poor, disabled, sick, homeless, hungry and elderly are being implemented and further cuts advocated for. We are sick, sick, sick.
JOHN WALTON MR | 4/8/2011 - 12:35pm
At the moment, the debate seems to hinge upon Federal funding the US largest provider of abortion services, Planned Parenthood.  Head start, etc. aren't going away, and are just the proverbial "red herring".

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