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The Miserly Society

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Right here in North Carolina, the State where I stand, poverty has left its mark. Some people say that if these Americans are poor, it is their own fault. I have even heard others say that God ordains poverty for the poor. Well, I don’t believe them, and I don’t believe God believes them either.
-Lyndon B. Johnson, May 7, 1964

There have been times when for many, maybe most of us, personal wealth was not merely a personal end but a means to build a better country. This is not one of those times. Magnificent things such as eradicating poverty, expanding infrastructure or even exploring outer space are nowhere on the national agenda. We have become so averse to shared sacrifice, we can’t even work for full employment. Instead, we have devolved to a point where the accumulation of personal wealth has become an end in and of itself. In fact, too often it is the only sought-after end. We are becoming a nation of misers. And this ignoble retrenchment is being aided and abetted by the Religious Right.

I remember President Lyndon Johnson wanting to use government for the greater good. “Do something we can be proud of,” he said, “help the weak and the meek and lift them up and help them dream; give them an education where they can make their own way instead of having to live off the bounty of our generosity.” Johnson wanted government to transform victims of poverty into self-sufficient citizens.

Back then we were a more prosperous nation where wealth was more equitably – and more meritoriously – distributed. The Great Society continued the legacy of the New Deal through which we sought to achieve full employment by implementing economic policies that encouraged a continuous aggregate demand for its products. This was part of a greater era when both Democratic and Republican administrations knew that the judicious use of debt and taxation were powerful tools in keeping both unemployment and deflation at bay.

Johnson’s exhortation that we “to do something we can be proud of,” was rooted in a transcendent notion that God does not ordain poverty. And to that end, it is our collective responsibility to use our abundant wealth and resources to prevent and to minimize economic calamity. Not coincidentally, it was also the era when mainstream interpretations of Christianity emphasized public salvation rather than individual salvation. It was a time when government was more often than not seen to be a force for good. More importantly, wealth was not generally thought of as an end in and of itself but instead a means to reasonable life; a vehicle to create a better world for both society and the individual. And it was a time we measured achievement more goals we attained as a people than by the amount of personal wealth we were able to thrust in our individual pockets.

While the Great Society clearly had its genesis in FDR’s New Deal (which in and of itself was deeply rooted in Catholic and Protestant notions of distributive justice and Social Gospel), it also reflected Truman’s thwarted effort to achieve single-payer universal health care; Eisenhower’s commitment to infrastructure as well as JFK’s challenge to land on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

Sadly, LBJ’s Great Society program was largely pushed aside by the Viet Nam War. But his generous vision for a caring society is still with us. Medicare has kept untold numbers of senior citizens from needless poverty. Project Head Start has given generations of children a much needed leg up at the outset of their elementary school education. And perhaps its most impressive accomplishment was that from the time LBJ took office until circa 1970 (when the Nixon administration began curtailing some of the Great Society programs) the share of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2% to 12.6%.

But with the ascension of a more hardcore conservatism since the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the sense of nation has changed from being a story of us to a story of being about the individual gain.

Beyond that, this was also the beginning pf ascendancy of a more fundamentalist version of Christianity, one that focused on the salvation of the individual rather salvation through the reform of public institutions. It is no small coincidence that many of the movers and shakers of the contemporary Right would simultaneously hold that both wealth creation and eternal salvation were individualistic endeavors.

This is evidenced in the actions of New Jersey’s current governor, Chris Christie, who, despite the numerous jobs it would create, killed the building of a necessary rail tunnel between his state and New York City. He claimed that, “New Jersey could not afford its rising share of the projected costs.” As a socially conservative Catholic who embraces classical economics, replete with its anti-tax dogmas, Christie would rather bequeath a legacy of obsolete infrastructure simply because he chooses not to ask some of constituents to sacrifice a tiny fraction of their wealth.

Go to the Moon? Governor Christie won’t even help commuters cross the Hudson River!

Lest anyone think I am straying off topic for this site, let’s now note that Religious Right activists, led by Catholic neocon-turned Tea Party cheerleader Robert P. George are front and center in this race to the bottom.

The Religious Right Providing Cover

Writing recently on the web site of his American Principles Project, George called for the marriage of economic and religious conservatives, declaring:

Sound conservatism, as a matter of principle and not mere pragmatism, will honor limited government, restrain spending, and provide honest money and low taxes-while at the same time upholding the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions; the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and protect the innocence of children.

This view is common on the Religious Right, particularly the Catholic Right. Back in 2003 neocon Michael Novak equated progressive taxation with “confiscation.”

Robert P. George may believe that he is espousing, “sound conservatism” but in reality it is nothing more than miserliness encapsulated in very unsound economics.

Debt and Taxes

But what of debt and taxes? The neocons and most other conservatives demagogue these things all the time. But liberals have been silent to the point of philosophical negligence; and in failing to answer, we leave the average citizen badly informed, and essentially thrown to these ideological wolves.

As we all know there is good debt and bad debt. And debt that is used to create full employment can hardly be deemed as wasteful.

We have had such debt before. “Some day” the economist William T. Foster noted at the outset of the Great Depression, “we shall realize that if money is available for a blood-and-bullets war, just as much money is available for a food-and-famine war”
Consider the observations of post-Keynesian economist (and author of the highly recommend The Keynes Solution: The Path to Global Economic Prosperity) Paul Davidson:

When the United States entered the war in 1941, the fear of deficits and the size of the national debt were forgotten. The important thing was to defeat the enemy. In the war years from 1941 to 1945, the GDP doubled while the national debt increased by more than 500 percent as Roosevelt financed much of the war expenditures by government borrowing. By the end of the war in 1945, the national debt had increased to $258 billion and was equal to approximately 120 percent of GDP.

As well as:

Rather than bankrupting the nation, this large growth in the national debt promoted a prosperous economy. By 1946, the average American household was living much better economically than in the prewar days. Moreover, the children of that Depression-World War II generation were not burdened by having to pay off what then was considered a huge national debt. Instead, for the next quarter century, the economy continued on a path of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity with the Eisenhower administration launching the biggest public works project-the interstate highway system-and the Kennedy-Johnson administration spending large sums on sending a man to the moon and the escalating Vietnam War. at the same time, the inequality in the distribution of income was significantly narrowed. It was the golden age of economic development for the United States as the rich grew richer while the poor gained even more in a rapidly rising level of income that created a large American middle class.

As a child of the Depression and a young teenager during the World War II, I have never felt burdened by the huge government deficits that accrued due to government spending during the Great Depression and the war that followed. The legacy that the Great Generation who were adults during the depression and the war left to their children was an economy of abundance and prosperity. I inherited an economy that made finding a good job easy for me and all of my cohorts and provided excellent opportunities to improve our living standards. If this is burdening children and grandchildren, I hope the current generation can create such a “burden” for their progeny.

Sometimes you can spend your way out of bad times. It’s been successfully done before.

But with that said, debt cannot go unchecked. When and if full employment is reached, public borrowing can crowd out private borrowing. But this is not a real concern today when unemployment and deflation are lurking. That is where taxation becomes an important tool.

It is disheartening when demagogues such as Robert P. George mindlessly denigrate the judicious use of taxation. His call for 24/7 low tax rates is nothing more than an esoteric equating of its use with sin.

Taxation is an extremely useful tool for regulating economies. We are experiencing a crisis of abundance not poverty. There is great wealth out there but it is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Businesses are hoarding profits to pay bloated dividends and executive salaries or simply sitting on it instead of investing of in their businesses or paying their workers a better wage. This is the scenario of savings exceeding investing that the economist John Maynard Keynes warned us about. When such hoarding takes place, hoarding that is detrimental to the overall economy, The threat of taxation is a handy device to get money circulating again. A truly progressive idea would present such hoarders a choice: either invest a portion of those profits in non-executive salaries and purchasing equipment or pay a premium tax.

And of course taxation can be used to pay down debt. Yes, we have to borrow in economic times like these. But when full employment returns, that debt should be paid back via taxation. Besides paying off debt, taxation in times of full employment provides the added benefit of reducing the specter of inflation by trimming purchasing power.

Writing in the early 1960s when the maximum federal tax rate exceeded 90%, the conservative writer Willmoore Kendall declared that if the top bracket were to be lowered to 40%, it would allow anyone to become “smacking rich.” Now, when the already wealthy hear that their federal tax rate may be adjusted a mere four percentage points up to 40%, they overreact by complaining about the costs of nannies and gardeners. Perhaps even more troubling is that Religious Right movers and shakers such as Robert P. George and Michael Novak offer such advocates of avarice religious cover.

Welcome to the Miserly Society.

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2 Responses

  1. Highly Recommended Reading:

    If you want to argue liberal economic theory in a way that is relevant to today’s crisis, I strongly recommend the following books:

    Paul Davidson’s The Keynes Solution: The Path to Global Economic Prosperity.

    and

    Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes: The Return of the Master

    Additionally, I recommend Lorie Tarshis’s textbook, The Elements of Economics. Keep in mind it was published in 1947. Thus, it uses statistics from that period. Still, it offers a purer Keynesian outlook that Paul Samuelson’s textbook, Economics (Samuelson adopted more classical economic elements to his Keynesianism). In fact, Tarshis’s text might have become the basic post-World War Two era Keynesian tome had it not for William F. Buckley Jr.’s hatchet job on it in God and Man at Yale.

    To read The Elements of Economics on-line, just click here.

    As for the next post, the shared view of Monsignor John A. Ryan and John Maynard Keynes that economics is a moral and not a natural science will be examined.

  2. Well done, Frank. The Catholic religious right continues to espouse an ideology directly contrary to the Gospel.

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