I was an interview guest last month, and the radio talk show host was asking me about the looming fiscal cliff. In the midst of discussing how our government must cut spending, the host had noted the title of my latest book – “The Virtues Of Capitalism, A Moral Case For Free Markets” – and after a few minutes of discussion, asked “do you mind if we take a phone call, Austin?”
Sometimes that word “moral” in the book title gets people very upset. This was one of those times.
“I’m a Pastor,” the show caller said, “and my Bible tells me that the ‘moral’ thing to do is to to love and to pray for our President, not to hate on him.” I noted to the caller that I had not said a word about President Obama. “Yeah, but all this rhetoric about ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘cutting spending’ is code talk for ‘I hate it that Obama won.’ Obama did win, and he did not create this crisis, so get over it…”
Thus was my experience a few weeks ago, being interviewed on a radio talk show in the “Bible Belt” region of the U.S. And the reaction I got from the clergyman (he has since emailed me, and I have every reason to believe that he’s really a Pastor) underscores some serious problems in our country. They are problems that both underlie, and yet transcend, our government debt crisis.
For one, Americans far too often trivialize our nation’s public policy. The Super Bowl is about “my team versus your team,” but debates about the laws and policies of our country are far more important. When Americans dismiss concerns over government debt as “you’re just hatin’ on my guy” – as the talk show caller did to me, and as many other Americans do regularly – then we’re in serious trouble.
Government debt is at a “code red” level of danger, and the choices that elected officials make over the coming two to four years or so will shape the world and our country’s future for decades to come. Save your zealotry for the “big game” – it’s time for Americans to engage their brains, not merely their passions.
And here’s another problem: far too many Americans seem to be illiterate when it comes to basic economics. We understand competition and excellence, success and failure, when it’s on the playing field or American Idol. But success in business is presumed by many to be ill-gotten gain, and people who make lots of money with successful enterprises are frequently dismissed as “greedy,” and deserving of more government confiscation of their money.
Worse yet, many of us seem to lose all sense of reality when it comes to the economic promises of politicians. Most American adults seem to understand that a drunken person cannot drink themselves to sobriety, and that no individual or household can spend their way out of debt. Yet when politicians promise to “help” us by spending more of our money, many of us seem to believe it.
Yet the existing federal government debt, on a per-capita basis, translates to approximately $54,000 per individual citizen, and about $200,000 per household. Simply saying “I don’t understand economics very well” is unacceptable. Americans must grow up and realize that a stable society needs prosperous private enterprise, and government that operates within its means.
And here’s a really tough one that our overwhelmingly religious nation needs to understand: economic systems are neither morally relative, nor are they morally neutral. Big government, little government, high and low taxes – these distinctions are not morally inconsequential. The President and the Congress can be blamed for running up debt, but they are an expression of the American electorate’s desires. If there was sufficient political pressure for fiscal responsibility in Washington, then there would be a sufficient number of elected congressional members who would require it, and the President would get on board with it too.
Likewise, it is not morally inconsequential to support a “make somebody else pay” public policy. Indeed, this is morally reprehensible. Amid an environment where nearly 50% of all households are receiving one or more types of government benefit checks, Americans mostly support the President’s “soak the rich” fiscal policy. Yet many of us are indignant at the thought of paying more taxes ourselves (and many more are outraged that, despite the President’s promises to the contrary, all of us who work are having more taxes taken out of our paychecks this year).
In my native homeland of California, the “make somebody else pay” philosophy could not be more obvious. Last November, voters there rejected a modest state sales tax increase that was on the ballot (a tax that would have impacted all consumers), yet overwhelmingly supported an income tax hike on – you guessed it, “rich people.” “Don’t stop my government services,” a majority of California voters seemed to say, “but make somebody else pay for it.”
Debt, out of control spending, and making somebody else pay – they all amount to a lethal combination. Will Americans grow up in sufficient time to choose more wisely?