Monday, February 21, 2011

Power and Privilege: Why Reinhold Niebuhr is Key to Understanding the Budget Battle

A few months ago New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wondered in amazement how economic policies that had long since been disproved in the academic world could still be influencing public policy (When Zombies Win). 
I think the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr can help to explain the triumph of discredited ideas. Though he wasn't writing about today's struggles, back In 1932 Niebuhr wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society what is still the best explanation of how politics works today, 79 years later. I’ll quote him at length:

A laissez faire economic theory is maintained in an industrial era through the ignorant belief that the general welfare is best served by placing the least possible physical restraints upon economic activity. The history of the past hundred years is a refutation of the theory, but it is still maintained…..
…Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed…Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise.
If all this is correct, then among all the recent budget cuts passed by the House, we should see an effort to defund regulatory agencies. And that is exactly what has happened. By defunding the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission the financial world will be even more inadequately regulated.  Cutting $578 million from IRS enforcement is not about saving money, it’s about deregulating.  And of course the EPA will be cut $3 billion and will no longer be allowed to regulate greenhouse gasses.

And in Wisconsin (and Ohio) there is an effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin public sector unions have said they are willing to negotiate wages and benefits, but they will not abandon their right to do so collectively. If this debate were about sound public policy, then statistics like this one would matter:
There are five states without collective bargaining rights for educators: South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. On ACT/SAT scores they rank, respectively: 50th, 49th, 48th, 47th, and 44th. Wisconsin currently ranks second. If, as states’ rights proponents sometimes claim, states really are laboratories of democracy, then what we’ve seen is that removing collective bargaining rights is bad public policy. But that’s irrelevant to this debate, because it’s not about policy, it’s about power.
All the think tank analyses and policy wonks in the world won’t change the fact that this is about power and privilege, and the ability of the powerful to use that power to keep and even expand their privilege. Policy discussions may be useful to unveil power for what it is, but as Niebuhr notes, "When power is robbed of the shining armor of political, moral, and philosophical theories, by which it defends itself, it will fight on without armor; but it will be more vulnerable, and the strength of its enemies increased."

As a Christian formed by the Lutheran and Catholic social teachings, it is clear to me that we are called to be on the side of the least of these (Matthew 25:40). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a powerful pastoral letter in 1986, claiming:

The quality of the national discussion about our economic future will affect the poor most of all, in this country and throughout the world. The life and dignity of millions of men, women and children hang in the balance. Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor.
I am reminded of the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

We must not only unveil power for what it is, but must also take action against those who use their power to further their own privilege at the expense of the poor, those who have no voice either economically or politically. There are a lot of excellent groups taking action to balance the power of the people against the power of the wealthy, one of which I’ll endorse here: US Uncut. US Uncut works to raise the visibility of one of the many alternatives to slashing programs for the poor, actually closing corporate tax loopholes.

Today, in the U.S. a narrative is being spun that we are broke, and that cutting $60 billion (less than 1/10th of our military budget) from programs that help the poor will fix the deficit. This isn't a factual narrative, but it's not about the facts. It's about the power.

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