Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Overlooked family values

Virtually every religious tradition emphasizes paying your debts and caring for your children. Yet America today is failing to fulfill these very basic moral obligations.

By Oliver "Buzz" Thomas

Throw out the turkey carcass, break out the tinsel and batten down the hatches. Election season is upon us. And, if this election is anything like the past two, religion and values will play starring roles in deciding the outcome.

A key economic issue that is starting to gain traction as a result of the falling dollar involves two of religion's most universal teachings and cuts across ideological and party lines. Whether you're Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Zoroastrian, your tradition has taught you at least this:

* Pay your bills.

* Provide for your children.

I don't know a religion this side of Dante's inferno that would dispute either one.

(Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)

For Christians, the Bible is explicit about our obligations to our children. "Children are not responsible to provide for their parents but parents for their children," wrote St. Paul to the Corinthian Church. He went on to assert that one who fails to provide for his family "has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." (I Timothy 5:8.) The obligation to pay our lawful debts runs even deeper, going all the way back to the Ten Commandments. Defaulting on one's debts is at least lying if not stealing.

Yet, Americans appear to be violating both of these great religious teachings at warp speed.

How are we doing it? By continuing to spend more and pay less with our national government. Specifically, we are $9 trillion in debt, with the figure rising at the rate of about half a billion dollars a day. The interest alone on the national debt amounts to more than $230 billion a year, or 8% of the federal budget.

The moral component

Why is this a moral issue? Because these are real dollars that must eventually be paid back. If not by us, by our children and our grandchildren.

Think about that for a moment. Nine trillion dollars is nearly $30,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. That's $120,000 for a family of four. And that's assuming everybody can pay, which they can't. The elderly, the sick and disabled, the young ... these people can't pay. When you boil it all down, the amount our workforce would have to pay if we could freeze the debt at its current level is gargantuan. Still, we keep piling it on.

I understand that debt can be useful during times of recession or national emergency. I remember learning how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used deficit spending to help propel the country out of the Great Depression. But piling up massive amounts of red ink as a matter of ordinary course portends disastrous results. This was a central message of Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, and one of the reasons we turned our attention to successfully balancing the budget during the '90s.

Here's what's fascinating. I don't have a single friend who would run up his credit card debt by $30,000 and expect his children to pay it off when he died. (Most of my friends live by the biblical adage that "a good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children.") Yet, none of these friends seems concerned that we're saddling our children with the same amount of debt through our elected officials. Because Congress and the president are the ones using our credit cards, we seem not to mind.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Combat veterans will tell you that it's easier to drop a bomb on hundreds of people from 20,000 feet than it is to kill a single person at arm's length. Up close and personal, moral questions are clear and focused, but between Washington and Waycross, things cloud up.

The tax cuts passed by President Bush and the Republican Congress in 2001 only worsened our economic woes. Projected surpluses never materialized in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but our deeply convicted, if not stubborn, president plowed full-speed ahead with his plan to give the surplus back to the American people. Meanwhile, government spending continued to soar. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were like pouring gasoline on the fire. Congress began the dangerous practice of adopting federal budgets without reliable figures for war-related expenditures. Then came Pell grants, Homeland Security, farm subsidies, Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, Medicare, foreign aid and all the rest. All good stuff, but the point is this: Somewhere it has to stop.

As the Hebrew Scriptures put it, men die for lack of discipline. We have only two choices really. Cut spending, or pay more into the system.

'Supply side' fallacy

I realize that Republican politicians beginning with Ronald Reagan in 1981 convinced us that you could balance the budget simply by slashing taxes on the wealthy and holding the line on spending. "Supply-side economics," they called it. The well-off would be able to invest more, thereby expanding our economy and growing additional tax revenues to balance the budget.

It didn't work. In the wake of the Reagan tax cuts, federal budget deficits ballooned to record amounts. The Great Communicator, a pragmatist at heart, responded in the only responsible way. He raised taxes.

Here we are 25 years later in the same fix but, alas, without a Ross Perot. To their credit, Congressional Democrats have adopted a "pay as you go" approach to budgeting, but even they appear unwilling to tackle the harsh reality of our collective debt. They have neither cut spending nor seriously moved to repeal Bush's tax cuts.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Democratic presidential candidates are busily proposing ways to spend money while Republican candidates continue preaching tax cuts. They all appear oblivious to the lessons of the '80s or to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office's 2005 study showing that such tax cuts routinely fall short of their billing and increase the federal deficit. No wonder George Bush the elder once called it "voodoo economics."

As a minister, I'm going to call it something else: Sin. That's not a word that gets used a lot in our politically correct culture, but spending money that we don't have and leaving the bills for the grandkids isn't going to earn us one of God's gold stars.

As "values voters" parse the politicians, I'd like them to remember this. Paying our debts is a family value.

Oliver "Buzz" Thomas is a minister, lawyer and author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job).

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