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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Moral Consequence of the Federal Budget Deficit

Some of the issues that governments grapple with have obvious moral ramifications, and moral philosophy and theology are brought to bear to sort out the right thing to do—for example, the legality of abortion.  Other governmental issues don't seem to have any moral ramifications in most cases but are purely practical—for example, whether your yard debris will be picked up on a Tuesday or a Wednesday.  But there are also some issues that fall somewhere in between.

One of these issues, in my opinion, is our enormous budget deficit at the national level, really just the latest in a string of deficits, although this fiscal year's makes those large deficits look puny by comparison.  On the one hand, questions of how and how much to tax and how and how much to spend can be pretty "wonky" (technical), involving lots of complicated numbers that technically oriented people with practical minds are trying to figure out for the best for everyone.  But on the other hand there are some moral principles involved too, like the virtues of frugality and civic duty, the justice or injustice of wealth redistribution, the appropriate sphere of government, and so forth.

But I would like to suggest that our persistent federal deficits have consequences that are even more morally weighty than we are inclined to think.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama spoke at length about human rights.  This was the first sustained statement on this subject from an American president or presidential candidate that I could remember hearing for a good while.  Do you remember when advocating for human rights for people around the world was a pretty big part of what we Americans thought we were here for?  This was a major reason that we pushed for the creation of the United Nations after World War II.  And even though many human rights advocates then and now are secular types, the roots of the very concept of human rights lie in biblical Christian theology.

When Thomas Jefferson, no orthodox Christian, wrote that people have been "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," he was expressing a concept that went back centuries among believing people.  Christians confess that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.  One reason that the second greatest commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself, is "like" the greatest commandment, to love the Lord with all one's being, is that we aren't loving God if we vandalize pictures of him, which human beings are—pictures twisted by sin, but pictures nonetheless.  (See also Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9-10; 1 John 3:104:20-21.)  So human rights are the obverse of the duties we owe to God to respect his image in his human creatures.

Human rights used to be a pretty big deal in U.S. foreign policy (or at least the talk we used to talk).  But over the past few administrations the foreign policy focus has been on terrorism and trade.  Sometimes these concerns have furthered human rights, but other times they have compromised them.

Let's take China for example.  Our economy is built on buying inexpensive consumer products from China.  If there were no China, there would be no Wal-Mart.  If there were no Wal-Mart, there would be no cheap stuff to buy.  And if there were no cheap stuff to buy, then the American middle class would be materially poor, and the American poor would be even poorer.

But our need to trade with China compromises our ability to rebuke China for its rampant human rights abuses.  If we tick them off so much that they stop selling to us, we're in trouble.  So we have to keep playing nice and not make a big deal about their repression and brutality.

On the other hand, China needs our marketplace as much as we need their vendors, so maybe they wouldn't stop selling to us entirely no matter what we did.  But they could stop buying our debt.

See, back in the old days, when the government spent more than it took in, it got loans from the people of the United States in the form of savings bonds and treasury bills.  When the government paid back the loan, Americans who made the loans by buying the bonds benefitted.  So even if the U.S. was publicly poor at any given moment, we were getting privately rich.  But have you noticed that not once since deploying our military in Afghanistan and Iraq has our government asked us to buy "war bonds" as it did during World War II?  That's because the government today doesn't expect Americans to loan the government enough to keep it going.  We now expect other nations to pick up the slack.

Other nations are pretty willing to do this because the U.S. government is about the safest investment around.  We've been going for well over 200 years and have never defaulted on a loan.  So when nations like China are looking for a safe place to put their extra cash, they invest in us.  Therefore, when we spend publicly more than we take in, we rely on them to make up the difference.  And because we rely on them, we have to be careful about what we say and do.

Because if we really got on China's back for its censorship of information (heard about Google today?), its abduction of human rights activists, its torture of house-church pastors, and its propping-up of the toxic regime of Kim Jong-Il in North Korea (if China really thought North Korea's behavior was problematic it would end in a second), then China might stop buying our debt and thereby pull the plug on our deficit spending.

And then the party would be over.  No more war on terror.  No more Medicare.  No more sub-European tax rates.  We would actually have to pay for what we buy.  Whether in loss of security, services, personal wealth, or some combination of the three, we would suffer.

So instead of suffer we allow China to do its tyrannical thing and just furrow our brow every so often in their direction.

I am not using this post to advocate for how we erase the deficit, whether by raising taxes (preferred by liberals and statists) or by cutting spending (preferred by libertarians and conservatives, except for defense spending in case of the latter) or by both.  But I am claiming that as Christians who believe that humans created in God's image have rights, we must find a way to do so.  The deficit is a moral issue.  Every dollar our government spends that we taxpayers do not pay weakens our willingness to confront injustice and subsidizes the persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ half a world away.


  1. This is spot on. Also, it is a supreme hypocrisy that we legislate all kinds of regulations (human rights regulations and environmental regulations) that make it impossible for our domestic companies to compete with China. I've been telling my kids for years that if we don't allow it to be made that way here, there is no way we should buy it there. We have run our own companies and factories into the ground while hypocritically supporting the abuses that China commits. A day of reckoning will come.

  2. Also, I do have two blogs that are not connected to this account. If you ever want to visit one, there are links on my Facebook page.