A New And Greater Commandment?

Posted: July 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

The Rev. Jim Wallis, noted Christian liberal, recently faced off against the Rev. and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention about the morality of the U.S. Budget Deficit and its solutions.  http://nyti.ms/n34L83.   What’s notable is Land’s claim that $700 billion of our tax dollars goes for “means tested programs” that support single parent families—an immorality that apparently should be addressed by any thoughtful policy maker.

Land’s argument demonstrates that even if you end “welfare as we know it” in the U.S.—we did that 14 years ago—it will never die as a political target.  His budget numbers were dubious, as Wallis suggested.  The primary cash aid paid to “single parents” comes through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, once known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  State and individual entitlement to TANF was ended on the federal level in 1996, and assistance was conditioned on participation in work searches, work activities, and what is known in the trade as “rapid labor force attachment” (i.e., take the first job, regardless).    Federal payments to AFDC-TANF since welfare reform have hovered in the $20-25 billion range. See http://bit.ly/qKgiOq.  While Land is surely referring to other “related spending” on single parent families, it is difficult to reach the $700 billion mark no matter how you count it.   Total Medicaid spending, the most expensive portion of which is for those in long-term care, costs us roughly $250 billion per year, while the total bill for Food Stamps is $73 billion annually.   See http://1.usa.gov/n9DAPI .  While Land is without a doubt a “fisher of men,” (Matthew 4:19), his net on this issue is cast so wide it must include a portion of the Afghan war attributed to single parents.

It’s possible Land simply made a mistake and got his numbers wrong.  It’s not difficult when it comes to  welfare–$700 billion was the amount Congress authorized the Treasury Department to use under the Troubled Asset Relief Program(TARP) to bail out the banks in September, 2008.   See http://nyti.ms/ohQAPN.

But TARP is more than a punch line in moral debates about the budget.  It demonstrates our worship of the private market and the government’s role in ensuring its needs are met.  Let’s put aside the rhetoric about the bills we’re leaving our children.   Why, in a time of depressed consumer spending is Congress obsessed with decreasing government spending, which augments spending power, and thinks a sovereign, destined, and exceptional country like the U.S is going to follow Greece to bankruptcy?  It’s because “less government” has become an ethic onto itself, one that embraces an even more suspect ethic—the private market.

Philosopher Jan Rehman summarizes this perspective in Pedagogy of the Poor, written with Willie Baptist (a scholar-in-residence at Union Theological Seminary).  See http://amzn.to/n3rFdC.  Rehman notes that economist Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian Economist who became the father of neoliberal (market worship) theory, argued that social justice is illusory and misleading.  Why?

“Justice can only exist among individuals, [Hayek] assumes, and therefore cannot be applied to the anonymous and spontaneous mechanisms of the market.  [Hayek] frankly admits that this market gives to  those who already have.  But this is its merit than its deficit.  One cannot apply a standard of social justice if there is no one  in charge who can be blamed and to who one could appeal if the standard is not met.”  Pedagogy of the Poor, at 54.

Rehman observes that this establishes the market as a “kind of deity” which operates like a hidden God.  Attempting to understand its workings and influence its outcomes leads, according to Hayek, straight to socialism and totalitarianism.  Rehman concludes that Hayek’s hidden God is “definitely not the biblical God of the Exodus and the Jubilee Year, of liberation and social justice, but the reified rule of  money, capital, and shareholder values, namely the very  fetishism the Bible so forcefully condemns as idolatry, epitomized  in the ‘golden calf.’ “ Pedagogy, at 55.

This is the moral issue at stake in our budget deliberations.

J.Peter Sabonis Esq.

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