Friday, October 21, 2011

Colbert, Charity, and a Christian Nation

I recently posted the attached quotation from Stephen Colbert to my Facebook page.  It captures in a satirical way my own confusion when hearing arguments that A) we should live by the precepts of Christianity (to the point of making them an overt part of our government), and B) we should dismantle social programs that help the elderly, sick, poor, unemployed, etc.  I'm not confused that I hear these two arguments.  I'm confused that I hear these two arguments coming from the mouths of the same people.

As often happens when posting politically-minded content, I got some dissenting opinion.  In this case, I had several back and forth posts with a friend of mine who believes that Social Security as it now exists should be phased out and that private and church charities would do a better job of caring for those in need than government programs.

I'd been meaning to post something to this blog on these issues for some time, so this conversation prompted me to finally do so.  But there's also a meta-point to this post, which is the value in trying to understand people with different points of view.  It's all too easy to demean opinions we do not share, as well as those who hold them.  Lord knows I fall into this temptation more often than I care to admit.  But, despite the limitations of Facebook and similar media, seeing that people you know, care for, and respect have different views on things than you do is a helpful reality check.  Sure, snark often reigns supreme in such venues (again, I speak as a frequent perpetrator of snark, despite my best intentions), but a reminder that we are not antagonists but fellow travelers in the world might help us look for transcendent solutions rather than victory in our debates.

Now, having said all that touchy-feely stuff, here are a few arguments I've heard to support the contention that social programs are not something the federal government shouldn't be involved in and why I am not in agreement with these arguments.  I'll try to put a limit on the snark, although I make no promises.  I'm a weak and flawed man.

Americans are inherently giving people and already give huge amounts of money to charitable causes.  This suggests that we do not need/should not have the government mandating that we spend money to deal with social issues.

It is true Americans are generous.  We give billions to charity every year.  No one disputes this.  However, the idea that this means a social safety net maintained by the government is unnecessary is,  in my view, flawed for a variety of reasons.

First, a great many "charitable" causes do nothing to directly help those in need.  Donating to a museum, the local symphony, or NPR, while charitable and benefiting the common good, do not directly help the homeless guy on the street.  A large chunk of Americans' charitable giving goes to their churches.  Again, this is admirable, and often this money *is* used to help the needy.  But much of it does not.  A lot goes to paying staff, building new sanctuaries, and, in the case of the mega-church down the road from me, hiring law enforcement to direct traffic after Sunday services let out.

A deeper issue is the underlying premise that "the government" and "Americans" are mutually exclusive groups.  In fact, in a democracy, these are one in the same.  It often doesn't seem like that, and people on all parts of the political spectrum have legitimate grievances about how the government is not representing the best interest of the people (See: Occupy Wall Street).  But at a fundamental level, regardless of the ways in which the will of the majority is distorted in the day-to-day practice of government, a democratically elected government is a government of, by, and for the people.  Programs such as Social Security and Medicare are collective actions that we, as Americans, have decided to make on our behalf.  They are a way in which our generosity to ourselves and one another is made manifest.

In fact, polls consistently show that Americans as a whole favor spending on social programs and have a strong sense of the benefits of collectively contributing in a systematic way to the common good, not only in the form of aid to the needy, but also for the upkeep of the environment and the free public education of our children.

Would it be nice if we individually had more say in how our tax money is spent?  Sure.  I'd certainly like to not have a large chunk of my tax money spent on pointless and immoral defense spending.  If we truly think individuals should have the right to choose how their money is spent, let's not cordon off programs that help the neediest people as the only ones to be elective.  Let's do it for the whole budget.  Again, polling data over the last 20-30 years shows conclusively that, were this to be done, spending on social programs would spike and defense spending would fall dramatically.  This is part of the reason why, despite the rhetoric of "individual choice," many who argue for slashing social spending would not embrace such a radical scheme of individual choice (see "strict father mentality" below).

Massive social spending during the Great Depression didn't end poverty, ergo, it never will.

This argument is a classic example of the logical fallacy of the false dilemma: social spending either fixes poverty or it does not. No, the New Deal and related programs did not vanquish poverty.  What they did do was save hundreds of thousands of lives by feeding and employing people.  The U.S. did not come out of the Great Depression until the beginning of World War II (see below), but the programs put in place in the 30s alleviated untold misery and suffering.  In so doing, they also built up the infrastructure of the nation in ways that have paid dividends ever since.  Indeed, they essentially created the middle class as we know it today.

Government spending did not get the country out of the Great Depression; World War II did.

This argument fails to note that, from a purely economic perspective, WWII was the biggest government spending program in the history of the nation.  What were GIs but government workers?  What were aircraft carriers and air bases but infrastructure?  What was the Manhattan Project but the biggest alternative energy project ever?

There is nothing magic about war that is financially stimulative.   It's not as if when that bomb went down the smokestack of the Arizona, the Dow also exploded.  It's not as if when FDR said that a state of war existed between the United States and the empire of Japan, money appeared in everyone's pockets.  The war was nothing other than the New Deal on steroids--massive spending that put everyone to work at a time when jobs were scarce, employing people to achieve a national goal. The national debt spiked briefly during this period, but rapidly came down as the stimulative effects of the spending kicked in and spending returned to pre-war levels. This led to a colossal post-war economic boom we now consider a sort of national golden age.

Imagine a parallel universe in which fascism did not emerge in the 1920s and the Japanese stayed at home.  World War II wasn't fought.  But, somehow, we collectively spent the same amount as we did on WWII, focusing not on sending people to kill and be killed and on ways of laying waste to other nations, but instead on training and educating young Americans, employing them as teachers, construction workers, architects, scientists, writers, engineers, etc. and gave them work to do to improve the nation.  The mind boggles at what sort of golden age we might have experienced in such a world.

Social spending on medical care (e.g., Medicare and Medicaid) is unnecessary because hospitals are obligated to treat anyone who shows up, and many hospitals are associated with charitable organizations, such as churches, who will provide care to those who cannot pay.

Hospitals must treat me if I show up on their doorstep with my wrists slashed open; they are under no obligation to screen me for depression, provide counseling, or give me medication.

Hospitals must treat me if I am suffering a massive heart attack; they are under no obligation to provide me with regular checkups, diagnostic heart tests, cholesterol screening or medication, etc.

Hospitals must treat me if my body systems shut down because they have been ravaged by cancer; they are under no obligation to provide routine screenings for cancer, provide chemotherapy or radiation, or provide basic health counseling to help me minimize my chances of getting cancer.

Hospitals are obligated to help my wife if I wheel her into the ER in the midst of giving birth; they are under no obligations to provide family planning assistance or prenatal care.

In other words, hospitals are obliged to provide assistance in extreme circumstances, often when such help will be most expensive and least helpful/efficient.

Moreover, hospitals (even those that are not-for-profit) would be financially unable to keep their doors open were it not for programs like Medicare and Medicaid.  There is nothing magical about being a church or charity-affiliated hospital that means you have unlimited funds.  Indeed, the religious order that runs the university where I work also owns many hospitals in the Chicago area, and they must do a careful balancing act of running some hospitals that make a lot of profit so that they can finance the hospitals that do not.  And without government-funded programs, none of this would be possible anyway.   It's not as if the Vatican is going to cut a check to provide for the medical care of the residents on in a South Side Chicago neighborhood.

On top of this, many hospitals are only affiliated with religious groups in the most tangential of ways.  In my city, there is a hospital called "Lutheran" which is an utterly for-profit enterprise with no real connection at all to the Lutheran church.  Another local hospital is nominally associated with the Methodist church, and actually is a not-for-profit enterprise, but is also not tied to the church in any meaningful way, certainly not in a way that would allow it to stay open if it wasn't getting paid by patients (often through government insurance programs).

Private charity is far more efficient than the government when it comes to caring for the needy.

As Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt notes, this is a rhetorical commonplace for which there is little, if any, actual evidence.  It's simply accepted as an article of faith.

Certainly, some charities are quite efficient.  Others are not.   Charities have overhead costs like any organization.  Unlike the government, charities must market themselves to pursue funds, and there is evidence that, in many places, the majority of the money raised by commercial fundraisers employed by these organizations never makes it to the charities, let alone the ones they serve.

Moreover, even if all charities were 100% efficient, there are not enough of them to handle the need if government programs were to suddenly vanish.  To begin with, a large percentage of charities are not devoted to serving those in need.  They may serve other worthy social causes, but they are in no way serving the same function as (for example) Medicaid or the food stamp program.  Beyond this, to make up for the loss in government programs, there would have to be a huge growth in charities and giving of several fold to even approach the needs currently being addressed by government programs.

On top of that, many charities are already receiving large amounts of money from the government; the distinction between private charity and public funding is murkier than it first appears.

Yet another point: charities are, almost by definition, limited in their scope in any number of ways: the people they choose to help, the ways in which they help them, the locations they serve, etc.  While we should work for a healthy synergy between government programs and private charity, the notion that private charities could every provide a comprehensive social safety net that all Americans could count on is untenable.

In short, were the federal programs that make up what passes for our social safety net to disappear tomorrow, millions of Americans would suffer horribly through no fault of their own.

It is immoral to provide assistance for the needy because it takes from those who have succeeded and gives to those who haven't.  It subsidizes failure when it should be encouraging people to better themselves.

Some who argue government's role in helping the needy genuinely feel that those in need should receive help, but honestly feel that private organizations and individuals will do the job better.  As suggested above, this assumption is problematic.  But at least there is a shared presumption that aiding those in need is an ethical imperative.

But this call for government to get out of the business of assisting those in need often develops from more primal feelings--a particular worldview that is at odds with the ethics of charity.  In such a worldview, those in need are in need because of their own faults.  Not only is there not a moral imperative to come together to help such people, but there is a moral imperative *not* to do so.

One can trace this back at least as far as what Max Weber termed the "Protestant ethic" in which Protestant theology and capitalism developed in tandem, and the belief among folks such as Calvinists that making money was a sign of God's favor fueled the relatively bizarre notion (now accepted as fiscal gospel) that the proper way to use the money you make is to make yet more money.  As Weber notes, this linking between character and profit lost its overtly religious trappings by the 18th century, but we still live with the echoes of these ideas in the belief that those with money have demonstrated some sort of virtue (ingenuity, perseverance, courage, etc.) and those without have demonstrated some sort of vice (laziness, foolishness, dependence).

More recently, cognitive linguist George Lakoff has posited that there are two primary worldviews that dominate our political thinking, particularly about the role of government.  Generally speaking, the left side of the political spectrum adopts a "nurturing parent" model, in which government is there to make sure that everyone is okay, gets the basics of what they need, and gives them the opportunities to develop.  On the right side is the "strict father" mentality, which sees government's role as limited primarily to protecting and punishment (i.e., defense and law enforcement) and the fostering of competition in which people are encouraged to get ahead on their own.  In such a worldview, taking from the "winners" to give to the "losers" harms both groups: it punishes those who have succeeded and makes it easier for those who haven't succeeded to stay where they are rather than working their way up.  (I'd note in passing that this view presupposes a system in which everyone has a more-or-less equal chance at success--a premise that fails the giggle test.)

As Lakoff notes, we all have a mixture of these two worldviews and may see some issues through the first lens and the other issues through the second.

In this case, the discussion becomes more problematic, because it is no longer based on a common goal (providing for those in need) and how to best do it, but rather on a deep division in moral outlook, one that differs in both its definition of "helping" those in need and whether we as a society have any collective obligation to do so.

Often, I think we argue this issue on pragmatic grounds (Which uses less money for administrative costs, Medicare or Catholic Charities?) when the true disagreement lies much deeper and involves a fundamental difference in moral outlook.

Putting my cards on the table, as someone who believes the New Testament is the most profound and eloquent expression of a social moral code, I believe we do have a collective moral obligation to help those in need.  (And, even taking morality out of it, I am convinced that maintaining a minimum level of well-being for all members of our society is wise from a pragmatic view as well.)  By my reading, one would need to be an intellectual contortionist to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with Lakoff's "strict father" outlook or the notion that the best use of money is to make more profit.  But I realize that there are people who have become so skilled at such contortions that such a position seems comfortable and natural.

I think the key to moving forward in productive ways in this discussion is to identify the true level of disagreement (is it truly pragmatic, or is there an underlying moral component to it?) in any discussion and being genuinely interested in and respectful of other people's position.  Too many thoughtful, decent people hold differing views on this issue to simply write each other off as "fascists" or "Marxists" as is done so often on talk radio.

This does not mean we think that all views on this issue are equally valid or defensible; as my lengthy comments above attest, I do not buy into that proposition at all.  But having intelligent, rational conversations with people who hold different views is an enlightening enterprise, one that does good even if no resolution is reached, if for no other reason than it goads us into seeing the world and those in it in shades of gray rather than black and white.


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