A group of religious leftists met at the White House with President Obama yesterday, seeking to add their two cents to the debate over how to deal with the federal government’s budget deficit and the deadline to raise the debt limit. Jim Wallis has this to say about it at Sojourners:
Today is another intense day of politics at the White House. The debt default deadline is fast approaching. The stakes for the nation are high as politicians can’t agree on how to resolve the ideological impasse on how to reduce the deficit before the nation defaults on its financial obligations.
If this paragraph is any indication, the group was in trouble before they got there, since Wallis, at least, doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the deficit and the debt, or how default works. August 2 is not a deadline after which the nation defaults; it is simply the date after which further borrowing instruments cannot be issued. Tax revenues provide more than enough money to avoid default. That doesn’t mean hard choices won’t have to be made.
We urged the president to protect programs for low-income people in the ongoing budget and deficit debate, and in any deal concerning the debt ceiling and default crisis. In an engaging back and forth conversation, the president and faith leaders discussed how we can get our fiscal house in order without doing so on the backs of those who are most vulnerable. We shared the concern that the deficit must be cut in a way that protects the safety net, struggling families and children, and maintains our national investments in the future of all of us.
We made our simple principle clear: The most vulnerable should be protected in any budget or deficit agreements — as a non-partisan commitment. The most vulnerable need a special exemption from all spending cuts as they usually have had in previous times of deficit reduction. We told President Obama that this is what God requires of all of us.
The notion that Wallis & Co. have received some kind of special revelation regarding God’s opinions about the federal budget is touching, but irrelevant (unless, of course, they are trying to IMPOSE A THEOCRACY!!!). Here’s the real point: I agree that the poor should be protected in the budgeting process. The problem is how that is accomplished.
With the kind of naive faith in government that comes so naturally to religious liberals, Wallis and his friends assume that “protecting the poor” is synonymous with “keeping federal programs funding at the same level.” The idea that programs might be managed more efficiently, or that less overhead might make them work better, or that eligibility standards might need some tightening to include only the genuinely poor, or that the states might do a better job of doing what the feds have been doing–none of that so much as crosses the mind of Wallis & Co. To them, reducing the amount of spending on “SNAP, WIC, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Head Start, Pell Grants, and Community Development Block Grants,” among others, is simply inconceivable.
Let’s take three of these programs to see what’s wrong with this thinking:
1) Social Security: this is not an anti-poverty program. A significant portion of its benefits go to middle class and upper class retirees.
2) Pell Grants: leaving aside the question of whether the federal government should be subsidizing college expenses (Michael Barone makes a good case today that such subsidization has dramatically distorted the market for higher education in a way that educators will soon rue), it is also the case that a good deal of the money spent on Pell Grants goes to the middle class rather than the poor.
3) Head Start: according to the most comprehensive report on Head Start effectiveness (the Head Start Impact Study for the Department of Health and Human Services), the program has little discernable impact on children’s ability to learn, with few statistically significant results found as early as first grade, and pretty much none thereafter. In other words, Head Start either doesn’t do what it was designed to do, or does it poorly enough to warrant raising questions about whether the program should continue. Yet for Wallis & Co., as for the political left, Head Start is a sacred cow, the effectiveness and funding of which must never, ever be questioned.
Points like these can be raised about many if not all federal “safety net” programs, which when entitlements are included, cost trillions of dollars every year. Yet to hear the religious left tell it, pretty much the only thing that the feds can cut without “hurting the poor” is defense. Cuts are almost certainly possible there as well, but putting out a list of untouchable programs such as Wallis & Co. have is to demonstrate that they are completely unserious about dealing with the crisis that out-of-control federal spending has brought about (a crisis which is certain to hurt poor people the most if it is not dealt with before it brings down the American economy).
We agreed that we need both fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. Those already hurting should not be made to hurt more, and those doing well should do their part in sacrificing.
This is not very subtle code for “repeal the Bush tax cuts for the rich.” Doing that would, according to the White House, raise $700 billion over ten years. That’s less than half the current deficit for one year. Another way to look at it is that it would raise about $70 billion a year, which is less than 5% of the total deficit projected by the White House in almost any of the next ten years. So fine, go ahead and raise tax rates for the rich back to those of the Clinton era. Once that’s been done, and once defense cut have been made, what do Wallis & Co. propose doing about the other $1.4 trillion of debt that we are projected to add to the national debt this year and for years to come?
Bupkis. (That means “nothing of value” for you non-Yiddish speakers.)
The concern that Wallis and his colleagues have for the poor is commendable. Unfortunately, they know as much about economics and federal budgeting as they do about the Scheveningen Variation of the Sicilian Defense. Given the unlikelihood that they have actually been given divine guidance, their advice to the federal government should be ignored.