The money that the federal government spends may seem to come out of mid air. It does not. When the federal government borrows, it is issuing an IOU that your children or grandchildren will have to pay off. That IOU might be for something worthwhile and for something that the current generation of taxpayers cannot be reasonably expected to pay for out of current taxes. But that case should be made in explicit terms before we pile up more of those IOUs.
Jesus’ words and the social encyclicals make clear that we have an obligation to work for social justice, for public policy that advances the commonweal, to love our brothers and sisters as ourselves for the love of God, even when it does not make sense when judged from the perspective of the bottom line.
But none of that means we have a moral obligation to be economic illiterates or chumps. There is no virtue in being a spendthrift. We are free to criticize wasteful pork-barrel spending even when it is packaged as a boon to mankind, which it always is.
It would be a mistake to interpret Jesus’ parable about the wise and fruitful servant (Mt 25: 14-30) as an ode to free-market capitalism. Jesus was not recounting an early version of a Horatio Alger story. The servants in the parable who are praised because they increase their master’s money by investing wisely represent those who use God’s gifts to do their part in the effort to remake all things in Christ. Jesus is talking of moral accomplishments; He is not making a portfolio analysis.
But the fact that the Lord centered His parable on a wise deployment of private capital and labor tells us something. It makes clear that Jesus saw nothing inherently ignoble or base in making wise decisions about financial matters as we earn our daily bread. There is no reason to think that a businessman will be any more likely to forget that the Kingdom is not of this world than, say, a politician, a college professor or journalist. Jesus would have warned us of the danger of seeking profit through the labor of employees in a commercial enterprise before using a tough employer as a representative of the Father in a parable.
So there is no reason not to be pleased to hear that the funding was pulled for the infamous $320 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in late November, just before the Congress left for its Thanksgiving recess. The bridge was the pet project of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. It would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska to a remote island with a population of about 50 people. The joke in Washington is that Stevens and Robert Byrd (D-WV) are in a competition to see who can secure the most pork spending for their states. Stevens in currently in the lead, with $985 per Alaskan in this year’s budget.
The bridge has been a favorite topic of journalists and television news producers for the past year or so. You can see why. Aerial photos show a majestic bridge reaching from a sparsely populated section of Alaska to an island that looks like a wilderness scene in a Renfrew of the Royal Mounted movie. The Wall Street Journal reported on a poll that found more Americans know about this bridge than the name of their own Congressman.
Some of the news stories focused on how the Republicans are not living up to their promise to cut wasteful spending now that they are in control of Congress. Others on how projects like this cannot be stopped because even honest, reform-minded Congressmen have to play the Washington game of one-hand-greasing-the-other if they want their own projects to be passed; that taxpayers have no choice but to grin and bear wheeling and dealing like this.
Well, the taxpayers are not grinning and bearing this time. The publicity given to the bridge and the increased demand for federal aid for the victims of the hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana turned up the heat on the Washington lawmakers. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) sponsored an amendment to block funding for the bridge and to redirect the money to repair bridges on the Gulf Coast destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. This prevented the Bridge to Nowhere from sliding through out of sight of the taxpayers. If your local representative had voted against Coburn’s amendment, he or she would have had to stand up and defend a vote for a project that has become a laughingstock symbol of Washington irresponsibility and waste.
Does this mean that there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel in the battle to bring Washington spending under control? It would be nice to think that, but premature. In the same week that the story about the Bridge to Nowhere being voted down hit the news-stands, there were calls for increased federal funding for everything from rebuilding New Orleans to stopping the spread of AIDS in Africa.
I know: One can make the case that some of these calls for government spending are legitimate. But the point is that the federal government is running enormous deficits. Where is the money for these projects to come from? The Republicans refuse to raise taxes, and the Democrats want to raise them only on “the rich.” That isn’t going to cover the bill.
I live in Connecticut. Television ads around here regularly remind us that Connecticut is the wealthiest state per capita in the United States. One ad from an automobile insurance company uses the pitch that its low rates will help us keep that ranking. Nonetheless, Governor Jodi Rell, a Republican, is currently beating the drums for increased spending for Connecticut to help deal with heavy flooding that hit much of the state this fall.
I can understand why she would do this. The taxpayers would hammer her if the governors of the other states did a better job of getting a slice of the federal budget for their states. But that does not eliminate the irony. The governor of the wealthiest state in the union is asking the federal government, which is deep in debt, to allocate more money to her state.
The last prediction I heard was that the federal deficit for this year was going to be over $400 billion. Connecticut has a balanced budget. Rell would not think of asking Connecticut’s taxpayers to pay a significant increase in taxes to pay for the state’s problem. But she thinks it appropriate to ask the federal government, which is already living on borrowed money, to hand over more money to Connecticut.
How can she do this? Because she and everyone else in government knows that Washington can increase spending for Connecticut, on the hurricanes, on research for a vaccine for Avian flu, for the war in Iraq, for whatever it wants without raising taxes. The Federal Reserve Bank will credit the money to the Treasury and sell government securities to cover the amount. Those securities will be sold to investors, both here and abroad, and become part of the national debt. That debt will be the responsibility of the taxpayers of the future.
Is that unethical? Immoral? I won’t go that far. This generation of Americans has been saddled with paying off the government bonds issued by the generation in charge of federal spending 20 and 30 years ago. We are enjoying the roads and bridges and tunnels built by the Americans who sold those bonds. We are also profiting from the victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War secured by the military spending of that era. It can be argued that future generations of Americans will profit from the deficit spending of today’s federal government.
But those who believe that is so should be required to make the case in public. They should disabuse the taxpayers of the illusion that the federal government can allocate money without raising taxes. Whenever I hear Jesus’ parable about the wise and fruitful servant and the master who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he never planted, I can’t help but think that there is a moral dimension to the false impression that the federal government has a bottomless well of dollars it can allocate for every “good cause” that comes along.