The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh
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We are headed for a nasty election year in politics. Or is the word nutsy? Over the span of three days in July our elected representatives engaged in what anyone paying attention would call a bizarre exchange of verbiage that was supposedly a debate on raising the debt ceiling.

Congressman Joe Walsh, Republican of Illinois, huffed and puffed on his official Web site:

President [Barack] Obama, quit lying. You know darn well that if August 2nd comes and goes there is plenty of money to pay off our debt and cover all social security obligations.... Have you no shame sir? In three short years you have bankrupted this country and destroyed job creation. You are either in over your head or are hell-bent in turning us into some European big government wasteland.

Oddly, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (who twice stated that his main goal as leader is to prevent President Obama’s re-election) had a different take. In an interview with Laura Ingraham, the senator warned that failure to raise the debt limit would likely ensure Obama’s re-election. The Republicans will be blamed for a worsening economy, he said: “You know, it’s an argument he has a good chance of winning, and all of a sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy.... That is a very bad positioning going into an election.”

More oddly yet, the Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and the Republican Representative Ron Paul finally agreed on something: McConnell goofed. “He has lost his mind,” declared the senator. “Obama must be grinning ear to ear,” opined the representative.

The president, for his part, cautioned a group of Republican leaders against passing a short-term debt limit increase that he promised to veto. “Don’t call my bluff,” he said, apparently meaning that he was not bluffing.

The card game metaphor is as appropriate as it is scary. The fact that our situation is ridiculous should not lull us into forgetting that we are dealing with something extremely serious. Discourse has become so irrational and polarized that we find pundits on both right and left who hold that the opposition actually wants the economy to fail for their own political advantage. Has partisanship become so hardened in this country that both parties would rather have the country fail than have their pet ideologies compromised?

Perhaps the game analogy does not best apply, in the end. At least games have rules and logic in their procedures. In politics today, there seems to be little rationality. The president, having voted against raising the debt ceiling during the Bush administration, is now asking the Republicans to vote in favor of it. The Republicans, having done it multiple times during the Bush administration now refuse to do it for Obama. Hardened partisans like Representative Walsh accuse the president of bankrupting our economy in three years, although anyone who looks at the evidence realizes that a rash rush to deregulation in 1999, an unneeded “temporary” Bush tax cut, two trillion-dollar wars, a sweetheart, unmonitored deal with drug companies and a housing collapse all occurred before Obama took office. The president is accused of radical economic policies even though many of his advisors are hold-overs from the previous administration or transplants from Wall Street.

If you think we might turn to economists to help us resolve this problem, you are wrong. You can find economists who offer more contradictory theories than you will find in the history of philosophy or a courtroom full of hired “experts.”

Our situation, then, is dangerous, but it need not be fatal. House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama may yet muster allies within their parties who will seriously address our dangerously inequitable distribution of wealth, our illusions of endless entitlements, the diminishment of the middle class, the increasing misery of the jobless and the poor, the socialism that benefits those too big to fail, and belt-tightening for those too small to care about, and the 1,000-page morass of hidden loopholes and exemptions called a tax code.

It will take time. It will take imagination. It will take intellect and heart. But most of all, it will take courage to stand up to the nasty rhetoric and nutsy intransigence that haunts our political life.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 7/30/2011 - 8:21am
A few thoughts on Fr Kavanaugh's richly provocative essay.
The quote from Joe Walsh, representative of Illinois. "President Obama, quit lying."
Walsh is expliditly referring to the president demagoguing the social security issue, but perhaps has a larger context in mind.  If he also refers to the president violating his word in a more general sense, Joe suggests a most welcome change, although there is little evidence such change is likely. Ever since his campaign, we have seen instances of self-aggrandizement trumping President Obama's word on important issues. He committed publicly to not participate in "buying" the election by accepting only the public funding, until he saw that he, not his opponent, could get the most money and "buy" the election, at which point he violated his word, his "hope and change" proving to be so much palaver. Likewise, he promised to put the health care debate on CSPAN, open to the public, and not do what Hillary previously had done, craft something behind closed doors. Another welcome "hope and change" move. As soon as he had the house and senate, he violated his word yet again, locked Pelosi and Reid behind closed doors, and then rammed through a health plan against the will of the majority of the American public, who were left largely uninformed, outside the door.  These are simply factual violations of his word. Most are more subtle. Take the issue of homosexual marriage. He said he was not in favor of it some months back. Now, his position has "evolved" and he seems to be for it. What provided him with his "epiphany: on the issue? His finger in the air of the poll results: the same event that motivates his every move: it is a now votegetting plus, not a vote minus. Being the Daley style operative he is, if it gets him votes, he'll do it. Liberals are perplexed about his actions. They needn't be, just follow his guiding principles: what will get him votes, what will get him reelected? 
What is angering so many liberals about the conservatives who don't want to increase taxes and want to cut spending, in addition to simple disagreement, is that these conservatives are doing what they committed to do during their campaigns and subsequently were elected to do. Unlike our current president, they evidently take the pledge of their word seriously. I may not agree with them, but they are being honest with their electorate. Granted, many followers of the current administration are not accustomed to such personal integrity in politics.
Another statement from the article is not quite accurate, the sentence that states the president, having voted against raising the debt limit during the Bush administration(true), is now asking to raise it himself (true), and that republicans who voted several times to raise the limit under Bush (true) are now refusing to raise the limit (inaccurate). Unlike Senator Obama, they are in agreement to raise the limit, but only coupled with spending cuts and not raising taxes. Yet the point is still relevant: President Bush was a liberal on social spending. He raised the discretionary budget, excluding defense, almost twice as much as did President Clinton before him. He made immense increases, for example, on educational spending. He spent many billions on saving Africans from death and suffering from AIDS, etc. And while he is responsible for the expenses related to the two wars, he did not do so alone. Unlike President Obama's current war with Gaddhafi, President Bush got the approval of both houses before proceding on hostilities. 
Of course President Obama colluded with his predecessor on Afghanistan, and indeed campaigned to intensify that war, while following Bush's plan to withdraw from Iraq. President Obama also colluded with Bush on the idea of bailing out the banks, GM, and others, the corporate socialism Fr Cavanaugh refers to. This failure to follow sound free market principles-as Sweden did follow, for example, when it allowed its banks to fail in a similarly serious recession and banking collapse they experienced earlier, then recapitalized them and resold them to the private sector, with success-was in the opiinion of many a very poor and costly decision.
Another unfavorable contrast between Obama and a European leader, Germany's Merkel, is the manner in which they responded to the mortgage crisis. Whereas Merkel, faced with the crisis, like Obama pumped money into the economy, unlike Obama,she wisely cut spending severely, including social services and welfare payments. President Obama responded by pumping money into the economy (although not very efficiently, it turned out) and establishing a huge expansion of the most costly out of control entitlement, health care. While his administration presented a smoke and mirrors mirage that it would not increase costs, the markets didn't fall for it. This adding to the deficit by expanding entitlements (a worthy goal in itself) was a major factor in the current extended economic debacle. Merkel. on the other hand, was taken seriously and Germany recovered; the US was not so fortunate.
Before the Bush tax cuts, the wealthiest Americans paid 40% more than their share of the economy in taxes. After the Bush tax cuts, that ration of 1.4 increased to 1.6, that is, the wealthiest paid in taxes (around 63%) 60% greater share than their income (around 38%) of the GDP. Which brings us to an important point: Bush, true to his compassionate conservative nature, gave greater cuts in income taxes to the lower income earners. Largely as a result of this, the average American paid zero taxes on his income in 2010! How can the government pay its bills if the average income earner, one of the highest average earners in the world, pays no income taxes? And herein lies the hypocrisy of the liberal democrats. The estimated cost, disregarding supply side adjustments, of the Bush tax cuts over the 10 year period of the current decade is 4 trillion in lost revenues. Eliminating the tax cuts for the top 2% of earners, it is estimated, again unadjusted for supply side affects, would be $700 billion. That is not even a fifth of the income. If however the Bush tax cuts would be eliminated for all earners over $83K per year, $2.7 billion would be recovered, or 2/3 of the lost revenue. Ignoring supply side economics, the second goes a long way to recovering the lost revenue, the first does not. That is why the claim that democrats are engaging in class envy politics. rather than serious efforts to control the deficit, to get the votes of the other 98% is a valid point. 
One area where both liberals and conservatives tend to agree is education. In this international economy, the US will not compete if it has a second class educational system. Up until the last few years when the dollar was depreciated, the US spent more per student on education than any other member of the OECD, yet it ranks in the third quartile in results. What did we get for all this money? The fewest days and the fewest class hours of any of these OECD nations. Just like any other greedy, self-interested corporate monopoly, we got poor results from the expensive investment. What would you expect if your company was forbiden to evaluate its employees and forced to terminate good employees at the expense of retaining poor senior ones? And like any monopoly, this corporation is fighting competition of any kind, which would just further expose its corruption and waste of taxpayer money. That self-interested corporate monopoly is the NEA. It is a huge, if underrecognized, player in robbing the American middle and lower classes of their education. Not even this publication will support competition in the form of vouchers.
A broader, genuine economic reform proposal did indeed come up, one authorized by President Obama, in his bipartisan commission. His response: he sat on his hands, ducked the recommendations, filed them away, because he knew his own party was not serious about the deficit, and that too many of his and his party's votes would be affected negatively.
The bottom line, as Fr. Kavanaugh here implies, President Bush did a poor job of managing the economy. He was a big-spending liberal and accomplished little to control the deficit, or Fannie and Freddie for that matter, despite his attempts. President Obama, as all the numbers indicate, has thus far done an awful job. If he was dealt a poor hand by several of his predecessors, he has had ample time to demonstrate his qualifications or lack thereof for improving the situation. The nubers indicate that McConnell is fully justified in recognizing that President Obama is a serious impediment to the economic future of the US. Preventing his reelection is a worthy objective. It is hope and change we can believe in.




 
Michael Cassidy | 7/29/2011 - 5:18pm
I sincerely hope that Fr Kavanaugh's hope becomes a reality, but (sadly) I am not optimistic.  A couple comments on details:
-  Senator McConnell was not elected to the Republican National Committee, but to the U.S. Senate.  Accordingly, his priority ought to be to do his part in governing the nation, not to worry about who may or may not be President after the next election. 
-  A.W., a friend of mine with considerable political experience, points out that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires the nation to pay its debts, and places a burden upon the government to do so.  It is certainly within the realm of possibility that any Member of Congress who does not support that provision is in violation of his/her oath of office, to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 
-  An actual full-blown default is unlikely.  Rep. John Garamendi has already stated that the President might need to exercise Executive privilege (via an Executive Order or some other means) and simply pay the bills and continue to borrow as needed.  There would almost inevitably be a legal fight over this, but by the time the argument is settled the nation would have been saved, more power would be shifted to the Executive branch (the Tea Party having cut off its nose to spite its face), and the Supreme Court will likely side with the President in light of the Constitution.  This is not necessarily the ideal long-term outcome, but it would be good in the short term. 
-   One odd feature of the Tea Party position is that, should they prevail in not raising the debt ceiling, the government's cost of borrowing (and hence the debt) would rise.  It really is incumbent upon elected officials to bring a somewhat sophisticated view of government finance with them when they come to Washington, or at least learn something after they arrive.  That seems not to be the case at the moment  (and, by the way, term limits would make it worse; just look at my state, California). 
John Lyons | 7/27/2011 - 2:01pm
People, for once stop the blame game. Both parties are responsible for the status quo. And as for "banks", they're not known as bastions of conservative values, so blaming them as though they were right wing all along is sort of ironic given their actual political leanings....

But in any event, what's done is done. Suppose we hang, draw and quarter GW Bush and heap all the blame on his head. Suppose we summarily execute all GOP leaders and staffers. Fine. Has this changed the mathematics of our situation? No.

And the math points to an event horizon whereby the federal debt is projected to reach 25 trillion by 2020 and the interest payments on the debt will go from the current $550 billion per year (out of a 3.8 trillion budget) to well over 1.5 if not 2 trillion per year.... in a world where every other nation on earth also faces massive deficits and debts....

The mathematics point to two scenarios; an immediate collapse of 20-30% of GDP if we take our medicine in the form of immediate actual budget cuts over $500 billion per year (which we use to pay down our debt, not just the principle)... which will automatically hurt everyone dependent on wealth transfers....

Or we keep blaming each other and do nothing but dither or fake it and the whole government collapses around 2013 regardless who wins the election as tax revenues fail to keep in line with the budget and the cost of borrowing to continue the deficit spending (and paying interest on the growing debt) hits us hard.

What is Fr Kavanaugh going to do when the government is forced to cut back 20-30%? Blame Bush and the banks? What good will that do? What will he do when the government is forced to cut back 40% or more? Blame God?

That's my point.... you who engage in the "well the GOP and evil bankers this and that and the other..." miss the point: the math is working against your very fundamental assumptions of reality (an ever growing federal government) so if you merely put all your eggs in the blame game you will do the poor no good when the public money stops flowing. So what's next? revolution and bloodshed? Or practical plans to substitute federal monies for local and private funding?
An Hoa | 7/27/2011 - 12:53pm
Some of us might blame "them"-some hard-core Republicans-for endangering necessary social programs. Yet a fair number of those Republicans have been voted in by traditional Catholics. That raises the long-term question: what do Catholics teach in catechism of different forms (catechism classes, Sunday homilies, etc.)? Or, in our busy lives, we don't have time to learn catechism and to teach catechism to our children anymore? Thank you, Fr. Kavanaugh, for teaching catechism in the modern form of web & print media.
WILLIAM ATKINSON | 7/26/2011 - 5:18pm
John, I'm laughing all he way o he Bank, especially how you blame all on Obama.  I could begin o believe you if you were say 28 or 40, but  at 80 you must of lived thru so many recessions and years of corporate earnings to know better.   How about banks going to administration in 82 to get laws regulating interest removed, you know 12% to unlimited ceilings.  De-regulating air industry, allowing Sears and GMAC to become financial institutions, and especially changine SS to allow government organizations to borrow out of social security from years of SS excesses earnings.   In the name of Jobs, Jobs and Jobs, George Bush loaning and granting trillions to failing corporations who have moved their operational plants overseas.   And all the Bush giveaways to countries who favor our moneies, but not our way of life for their peoples.  What were seeing today is results of financial mismanagement in a grandioso way for a long long time.   As long as we have individual, community, corporate and government unregulated lending (blank credit card) at who cares what interest and lender, we can spend, spend and spend. Naught to worry about how to pay all it back, the great American black hole,  who knows whats on the otherside.   Been that way for 80 years or so.....
John Lyons | 7/26/2011 - 2:45pm
I continue to ask.... if your political ideology is based on the premise that the poor can ONLY BE HELPED via wealth transfers from the government to the individual and that 'success" and "progress" is found in more Americans utterly dependent on this transfer of wealth and the machinery of bureaucracy that alone makes it happen (run coincidentally by one political party).... you are facing an event horizon of doom right about now....

If on the other hand, your political ideology is based on the premise that anyone, poor, midde class or rich can create wealth and grow the economic pie without artificial government subsidy and that nothing government has to redistribute comes from some magical government source but has to be created in the private sector to begin with.... you are facing the prospect of liberation.

Because the local, state, and federal government is facing a crisis of solvency - living beyond their means while promising always more despite declining revenues and projected revenues...

So what's the Catholic, charitable thing to do and agitate for? Beg and plead for more government taxation? Or personal, local preparation to help personal, local fellow citizens and neighbors? I think we all know the answer is ideological. Democrat/liberals believe their moral virtue is based on their political/ideological opinion with respect to what OTHERS OUGHT TO DO, whereas conservatives/libertarians believe our moral standing depends not on our "right opinion" but on our own, individual actions or omissions.

If I were a Democrat and believed my party alone did the best job for the poor by our superior policies and bureaucracies.... and yet saw decade after decade of these programs and policies fail the very poor I claim to love.... I'd begin to question whether the policies and people running them might perhaps be "doing it wrong" or perhaps actually are wrong.

If I saw countless examples of socialism producing a booming economy, well educated children, expanding middle class, civil harmony and involvement, a march towards utopia, I'd give them more benefit of the doubt. But I don't see that anywhere. Not China, not Venezuela. Not Sweden or Spain. Take your pick and show me a 'socialist' regime that 'works'!

I can show you an America that works despite cuts to local, state and federal government, despite a dearth of local, state and federal bureaucracies and despite a social-justice is the be all and end all of the Gospel liberal Catholic matrix. I can because those states are Red and they are the wave of the future.

Tom Maher | 7/26/2011 - 10:03am
There is no economic enigma about the national debt crisis.  It is here and it is real and its csue is very staright forward: we have been spending for decades way more than the economy is producing.   We must be decisively and immeadiately addressed our chronic over-spending.

The United States national debt has been growing much faster than the economy for decades.  Accordingly the  national debt has now accumulated to be approaching 100 percent of our GDP.  This fact is well documneted in the April, 2011 "Fiscal Monitor" semi-annual report of the International Monetary Fund.  This report shows that as of 2010 our national debt was over 90 percent of our GDP.   The debt has grown in the last three years at an accelerated rate while our economy has remained sluggish.  Yet the President in the last two months sent to Congress inthe last two months a budget proposal that woud barrow 42 cents for every dollar of expeniture, a total of 1.6 trillion dollars of additional barrowing.  1.6 trillion is 10 percent of our GDP.  The Senate in May voted down the President buget proposal 97 to 0.  Both Democrats and Republicans rejected adding 1.6 tillion to our national debt in one year that would have made the national debt as big as the entire U.S. economy.  But asthe  IMF report points out the U.S. does not have a credible plan to reduce the national debt to a less dangerous high percentage of GDP.  

Both houses of Congress have not been able to pass a budget in two years because of the significant impact any budget at the present spending levels will have on dAangerously increasing the natioal debt. 

The debt rating agencies have said that even if a debt ceiling increase was voted on the nations debt rating may still be downgraded due to how hugh our national debt has become.  This is same dangerous condition that Greece, Ireland and Portugal had with their national debt berfore they were overwhelmed by their debt and went into default.

Our national debt must be controlled or the United States will go bankrupt. 
Stephanie Wong | 7/25/2011 - 11:54pm
I really hope that they find a way of compromising. Speaker Boehner's speech on tonight's television was particularly disappointing... such an ad hominem attack.
Mike Evans | 7/25/2011 - 12:17pm

' It will take time. It will take imagination. It will take intellect and heart. But most of all, it will take courage to stand up to the nasty rhetoric and nutsy intransigence that haunts our political life...'

I would add it will take great faith. To tackle the terrible consequences of a world-wide financial meltdown, it will indeed take perseverence, good will, strong action and persuasive discussion to turn things around. There is so much at stake, well beyond the winners/losers in the next elections. We may be talking about the survival of the entire world. We cannot afford another world war or even major uprising. We see so many failed states already as well as grinding famine and poverty affecting millions of innocent lives. We are still blessed with abundant riches; we need to harken to Lazarus at our door, so sick and poor that even the dogs lick his sores. How can a Catholic or any religious person's heart not be moved to act?

ed gleason | 7/25/2011 - 12:13pm
On Monday morning 7-25 I think default will happen. The TP/GOP mantra, is that interest on the debt can be paid with the ongoing August revenue. This ignores the fact that their plan is to pay the Gov. of China and Chinese investors of US treasuries before SS, Vet and military checks are sent out. How will the Joe Walshs explain that to the mid-west TP people? This fact will embolden Obama to 'call the bluff' with rejection of the short term raise of limit. The Dems would be crazy to accept a one year raise so that the TP IED could be used/planted right before the next election.  .. SS and other checks will be late,  the market will swoon, DOW down 40-50% and Wall Street business Republicans  will be so hurt that TP/GOP will not be heard from for at least 3 election cycles.[that's 12 years folks] The poor will survive a month because evictions take time, and landlords know the checks will come eventually.  food can be secured but the 50% DOW decline will only hurt the ones who greed brought  the deficit in the first place.  

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