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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Debt Is Not the Issue
distributed 7/8/11 - ©2011

I would not comment on the US political circus about the debt ceiling if the issue was really about economic policy. I am not an economist, and I don't understand macroeconomic theory about appropriate levels of debt relative to GDP.

But that is not what this is all about. Debt is the tool that is being used to accomplish a political and philosophical agenda. So I do dare to comment on these matters of intense concern to us all. They are moral issues, and they relate to the core principles of an eco-justice worldview.

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Several years ago, political strategist George Lakoff described what we're seeing acted out around the debt controversy. In his little primer on strategic framing, Don't Think of an Elephant, he wrote (p. 104):

It used to be the case that conservatives tried to cut social programs one by one, and then they figured out how they could cut them all at once: through tax cuts. ... If you cut taxes and create a large deficit, then when any social program comes up ... there won't be enough money for it. So you end up cutting social programs across the board in health, in education, in the enforcement of environmental regulations, and so on.

Commentator Michael Tomasky wrote a week ago that the Republicans "scream about [the debt] crisis because what they desire is to use the crisis as an excuse to do things to this country that the hard right has wanted to do for 30 years." He echoes Lakoff's policy analysis in light of current issues at state and federal levels. (His partisan screed probably won't be compelling to those who don't share his progressive social commitments.)

More significant is the July 4 column by David Brooks (almost always described as a "conservative" commentator), which takes the Republicans to task for their absolutist tactics on debt. He applauds the Republicans for advancing the debt agenda, and for being demanding negotiators. But then he wrote that "the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative."

The succeeding paragraphs open with a series of amazing statements about the political party that Brooks traditionally supports.

  • "The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms."
  • "The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities."
  • "The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency."
  • "The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name."

At the end, though, I think Brooks gets it wrong. He sees the obsession with debt as an end in itself. He labels the necessary next steps of cutting programs as unfortunate consequences, instead of the planned effect of budget changes.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures.

Brooks is absolutely right that the governmental gridlock over the debt ceiling has pushed us beyond the normal realm of politics. The absolute unwillingness to compromise -- and even to push the terms of negotiation into ever more extreme territory -- reveals an ideological drive that goes far deeper than immediate fiscal policy about deficit levels. Slashed government programs and reduced federal authority are the desired outcome of the deficit conflict, and this year's extremists are willing to risk the calamity of default in pushing their cause.

As I wrote in a Notes last February about the Clean Air Act, "our most urgent moral debate is about the legitimacy of regulation, not the science of global warming." The United States today is wracked by a deep philosophical division about the role of government.

A year ago, I wrote about a foundational element of that split. I highlighted a long tradition in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in US culture, of supporting "the common good", and I pointed to the opposing perspective that is gaining prominence:

The current "tea party" movement is a visible expression of a libertarian approach which distrusts government, and which emphasizes personal responsibility to such an extent that concern for the neighbor and the community is lost.

We misunderstand this month's political news if we think it is all about the appropriate size of national debt. Rather, the looming deadline for a debt decision is being used to empower a movement that is passionately committed to reducing the size and power of government.

A news report this week further illustrates the intentions of right-wing budget proposals, and names the specifically eco-justice implications of those changes. "House Republicans outlined a fiscal 2012 spending bill on Wednesday that would sharply cut the Department of the Interior's conservation funding and cripple the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from refineries and power plants." Check out the news report for additional details of the anti-regulation, pro-business impact of the proposed budget.

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The size of the national debt is a matter of importance, and it does need to be addressed. The goals of the US tax code are also in need of public debate -- both in terms of who carries what responsibilities, and what incentives are offered to shape economic decisions. At that level, this year's conflicts over financial policies are timely and appropriate.

What is inappropriate is the way that a rogue element in the Republican party is using the deadline for voting on a debt ceiling as a way to drive an all-out attack on the role of government services and regulation, without being open about those far-reaching goals.

A de-funded government will not be able to protect the environment, to encourage renewable energy, provide health services to those who suffer environmental illnesses, protect endangered species, or perform countless other services that are necessary for public and environmental health.

The values of serving the common good and of protecting the environment are ones that are broadly supported by US voters. As Lakoff pointed out, the dismantling of government is politically difficult on a program-by-program basis. The fixation on debt is a way to hide the real anti-government agenda, and avoid debate about matters of great moral and practical importance.

Speak up -- to your friends, your church, and your representatives -- to let them know that you reject this hidden attack on essential government functions.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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