Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book review: "Fixing the Moral Deficit"
I recently finished reading Ron Sider's new book on "the deficit".  "America faces a historic choice", he writes. "We have a deficit crisis, a poverty crisis and a justice crisis. And they are all interrelated."  With the appointment of Paul Ryan as Romney's vice-presidential nominee, this book becomes even more timely.
This is a really helpful, detailed and yet passionate analysis of the federal budget deficit, the Obama and Ryan budget proposals, and biblically-based principles which Sider sees as applicable to federal budgetary decisions.  It concludes with a specific set of proposals (Sider is not content with the easy work of criticism, but is willing to but his own ideas out there) and then an encouragement to individual action ("We Can Do It").
I very much appreciated the wealth of detailed information about budget numbers, poverty, healthcare spending and so on in the first chapters. Sider recognizes that it is hard to give "just the facts" but he makes a good-faith effort to do so, and I felt that I understood things much more clearly as a result of reading these chapters.
I appreciate also his eirenic tone. True, some things aggravate him, especially politicians who make bold statements about deficit reduction and then carve out special exceptions for their own constituencies.  But he is not out to trash either the Obama or the Ryan plans, though he finds both of them inadequate, nor to paint either of their authors as beyond the pale.  (And I am glad to see the acknowledgment of the impact that G.W. Bush's PEPFAR program has had - it is a deep shame to see this compassionate initiative now on the budgetary chopping block.)

Finally, I appreciate and affirm Sider's conviction that the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest and poorest members. This has been his consistent message through his work with Evangelicals for Social Action and since the publication, in the 1970s, of the ground-breaking Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  In this book, with its focus on debt and deficits, this conviction is expanded also to a focus on intergenerational justice - how are we treating our children and grandchildren, including those not yet born?
Here are a couple of questions that the book left me with.
1. What are the limits of the analogy between debts incurred by a household and national debts? On a household level, it is easy to think of "spending money" as something like "eating food" - in either case, once you eat (or spend) it, it is gone. But of course that is not really correct on the level of the larger community: the money I spend is someone else's income, whereas the (excuse me) waste products of my dinner are not anyone else's food. In the same way, a substantial portion (not all) of "US government debt" is also "US citizen savings".  This thought makes language about the "national credit card" a bit oversimplified. 
2. Sider writes at one point, "We cannot find long-term solutions to our debt crisis without sustained economic growth." This is standard thinking, of course, and it reflects why people go into debt in the first place: you take out the student loans now because you expect, later on, to be making more money and able to pay them off.  But "long-term sustained economic growth" - a continuous global increase in the production and consumption of goods and services -  is probably not on the agenda any more.  So where does that leave the questions of debt and intergenerational justice?
3. As society moves towards a lower- or no-growth model, many writers see us developing a greater degree of local and regional resilience, rather than reliance on large national and global institutions.  The book is strongly focused on the federal government (since its subject is, after all, the federal budget deficit) or, in the last chapter, on individual actions.  Where does Sider see intermediate levels of social structure fitting into the picture?


byron smith said...

Related to #2 are of course the intergenerational questions of climate and ecology, though these are not simply reducible to the end of growth economics (though they imply it). Is there any consideration given to these issues in the book?

John Roe said...

Byron, There are a couple of paragraphs explicitly supporting a carbon tax, but I don't recall any other mention of climate/ecology issues specifically. Here is what Sider writes: "The scientific evidence is increasingly clear that the vast amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere because of our burning of fossil fuels is creating climate change that will have very bad, probably devastating, consequences. One major proposal to reduce the use of fossil fuels and make renewable energy more competitive is to put a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. A carbon tax could easily raise $100 billion a year.86 A major problem with a carbon tax is that it is regressive-it falls most heavily on the poor. Therefore, if a carbon tax were adopted, that portion of the income raised that is needed to offset its impact on low-income people should go for that purpose. The rest could be used to reduce the deficit. That would be good both for the budget and the global ecosystem. It would also contribute to intergenerational justice since our grandchildren will suffer from or rejoice in the world we leave them. Our current desire for cheap energy is creating a world full of huge problems for future generations."