A time to spend

July 21, 2011
Sculpture of a bread line, at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. Some rights reserved by Jeremy.collins.

"In these tough times, Americans are tightening their belts—and their government needs to do the same." Versions of this line have enjoyed bipartisan popularity lately. President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and other leaders from both parties share the talking point. It's a good applause line: it's pithy, full of populist empathy, easy to understand. It's also exactly wrong.

While partisan gridlock over raising the debt ceiling has taken the nation to the brink of disaster, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on the issue are largely political, not substantive. The consensus view is that the budget deficit is the country's most pressing economic problem and that cuts to government spending are the primary solution. The policy questions on the table boil down to just this: how drastically should government spending be cut—and should the deficit also be reduced further by a modest package of tax increases?

Meanwhile, almost a tenth of Americans are unemployed. Cuts to essential services will hurt these people while they're down, and deficit reduction of whatever kind will do little to get them working and the economy rolling again. That turnaround requires more of the things that antideficit zeal has pushed off the table: federal support for states, investments in bridges and roads and train tracks, targeted relief for lower-income taxpayers.

In short, to revive jobs and the economy, the federal government needs to do the opposite of what families should do in hard times: spend more money.

It's true that doing this would increase the deficit, and it's true that budget deficits ultimately need to be faced. But the deficit problem is far less urgent than most elected officials are letting on. In this weak economy with high un­employment, the deficit is a long-term problem, not a short-term one. The immediate issue is unemployment—a problem that calls for spending, not austerity. Along with improving people's lives, more jobs mean a more robust economy—which will ultimately do more to reduce the deficit than anything else will.

President Obama has made some attempts to package short-term stimulus and long-term cuts together, but he's been foiled by the Republicans' sole focus on cutting government spending. Now the conservative narrative—that government should always be shrinking, even and especially in hard times—is ruling the day.

This is partly due to congressional Republicans' skillful maneuvering. But it's also because economics is a complex and counterintuitive subject: the best answers often don't seem right to voters. "We're all tightening our belts" is an unhelpful and misleading idea, but it sounds great in a speech. "The government has to step in to help reduce unemployment and revive the economy" has the advantage of being correct, but it's a far less concrete and accessible point. That's a pity for the jobless, whose crises and anxieties are anything but abstract.



In what universe does more spending solve a debt problem?


I think the Repubs have called this for many years "growing your way out". When 5% to 6% more of the employabble people are working and spending money the economy grows and revenue increases. Why haven't you been concerned about the increase in the national debt over the last 30 years. In the Reagan era, we went from teh largest creditor nation in the world, to the largest debtor nation in the world. Are you Rip Van Winkle, just waking up from a 30 year slumber? Then VP Cheney said "budget deficits don't matter". So the Repubs can borrow and spend recklessly for 30 years, then decide the damage hs to be undone before the government can function normally?

Want to cut spending, then cut DoD to the same per capita spending as 1979, What ever happened to the "peace dividend", where we wouldn't need to keep increasing DoD spending once the Russian empire collapsed.

Want to cut spending, then get serious about waste fraud and abuse in EVERY part of federal government.

Want to "fix" Social Security, then index the maximum contribution to inflation, or eliminate it altogether.

The Repubs only want to hurt the country by further wrecking the economy, especially if they can convince people that it is the Democrats' fault, and better still if it is Obama's fault.

The Tea Party candidates got elected in 2010 on the promise of job creation, where are the jobs?

This is the culmination of decades of the strategy of "starve the beast" to completely destroy social programs.

Department of Defense (DOD)

I agree with much of what the writer in the above reply has to say; especially about the DOD. DOD is another way of saying wasteful or unnecessary spending. Politicians who agree that the DOD is over financed unfortunately give their concern little more than lip service because of their fear of the military industrial complex that has so much power through campaign contributions and that President and General Eisenhower warned the nation about.

When we are financing a war,

When we are financing a war, two wars, without any of it showing up in the budget that was passed. Imagine if those dollars could be used for jobs; imagine if we had leadership like that during WWII: FDR believed, during World War II, that no American ought to have an income, after taxes, over what today would total about $350,000; he negotiated wartime tax policy to ‘correct gross inequities. The war revenue debate was fought on Roosevelt’s terms — not on whether to tax the rich, but on how much.

A time to spend

Respectful, articulate and right to the point. Well done, as usual, Christian Century.

Letter from Mary Ann Dimand

Your editorial “A time to spend” (Aug. 9) is of course right that emphasizing deficit cutting at a time of grave unemployment and increasing hunger violates Christ’s injunctions to mercy.

It also violates both divine and mundane concepts of stewardship. National wealth consists not only in financial assets/debt but also in the much more vast human capital (human health and education/skills), physical and technological infrastructure and environmental treasures. Gutting those three in pursuit of decreasing financial deficits is irresponsible stewardship, lacking even the basic concept of portfolio balance.

Mary Ann Dimand
Arvada, Colo.