Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Poor, The House Budget, Catholic Politics, and the Absence of Serious Dialogue

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has written a letter to Rep. Paul Ryan that was interpreted in many circles as supporting the Ryan House budget, a budget that supports the rich at the expense of the poor. For a discussion of the various positions taken by Catholic blogs, see Mark Silk’s discussion at Spiritual Politics. In an update, Silk mentions that Michael Sean Winters tells us all we need to know in the New Republic about this issue.

The essay by Winters contains a rich discussion about Dolan and Church politics. Winters concludes, “Dolan will not stand by while the GOP eviscerates those programs that assist the poor and the vulnerable. The Catholic Church, with its vast array of hospitals, shelters, and schools, knows firsthand how nutritional and educational and health programs really do make a difference in the lives of the poor. Most importantly, at the heart of the Church is a gospel that instructs the faithful to care for ‘the least of these’ and sets such care as the price of admission to sanctity and to heaven. No matter how Paul Ryan tries to convince himself that Rome and Rand can be reconciled, they can’t. Ayn Rand despised the poor. The Church is called to treasure them.”

But Winters also observes that “Traditionally, the Catholic Church has been a strong advocate for the poorest sections of society and the social welfare programs designed by government to provide for them. But for years, conservatives have been trying to undo this stance.” Despite the conservative efforts, the U.S. Bishops have continued to lobby against the House budget and to argue that the budget should not be balanced “on the backs of the poor.” Despite this, Winters suggests that Dolan feels some pressure to make those on the left and the right feel comfortable. Winters does not discuss why Dolan feels this pressure or where the pressure comes from. Yes, Michael Novak and other conservatives have argued against a strong governmental role, but Novak’s power comes, if and only if, it resonates with a powerful force among the Bishops. The Bishops have been prepared to ride roughshod over liberals on issues that the Bishops feel strongly about. If the Bishops have been prepared to lobby in ways that are critical of conservative policy, why does Dolan feel pressure to speak in more muffled terms in a more public setting?

Although Winters’s discussion of the politics is rich, I come away disagreeing with Silk: Winters does not tell us all we need to know.

In discussing Ryan’s budget, Rick Garnett says, “One does not have to like Ayn Rand (and I don't), or to be a "Catholic neo-con", to think that (a) it is both profoundly immoral and stupid to continue accumulating debt burdens at our current rates, (b) deep cuts in spending are required, and (c) these cuts require more than the usual promises of increased attention to "waste, fraud, and abuse" and "corporate loopholes" and will have to touch popular social-welfare programs (and defense spending).  Winters is right, of course, to say that Rand's vision is less attractive (because it is unsound) than is Pope Benedict's; but this fact does not eliminate the need to attend more seriously than, say, Sen. Reid has been willing to do to the need to cut spending and to design carefully any tax increases so as to avoid stunting growth.”

I agree with Rick that our accumulation of debt is unsustainable at current rates (though I think spending cuts in the middle of a recession are dangerous - see discussions by Reich and Krugman). I agree that not a lot of money is to be found in combating “waste, fraud, and abuse.” I primarily regret that it is not possible for politicians (despite Commission reports) to have a serious debate about how to reduce the debt.

Republicans with few noble exceptions generally refuse to entertain discussion of tax increases, elimination of corporate loopholes (despite Rick’s implication, there is a lot of money here; the question is what implications for the economy would there be in closing them – an issue that should be looked at on a case-by-case basis), and serious reduction of defense spending. Democrats refuse to entertain the possibility that some parts of social welfare programs need to be adjusted to cut costs and they themselves have also been captured by corporations (though often different corporations than the Republicans), and they have hardly distinguished themselves in calling for defense cuts or the kind of tax increases needed (in the long run tax increases for the middle class will be needed - a lot of money can come from the rich, but not enough and spending cuts will not suffice).

I do not agree (Rick did not directly speak to this), however, that support of the poor needs to be reduced in order to balance the budget.  I think the Catholic Bishops are right in opposing the balancing of the budget on the backs of the poor.


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Imagine how much more pleasant life would be if we acknowledged that Catholics can disagree on these types of debates. I can see good reasons why a Catholic might enthusiastically endorse the Ryan plan. I can also see good reasons why a good Catholic might sharply dissent from it.

See....wasn't that easy? And the nice part about seeing things this way is that it opens up a lot of time and energy for....you know...the rest of life.

Posted by: Rob | May 27, 2011 6:08:17 PM

Steve, let's agree (after all, everyone does) that the budget should not be balanced on "the backs of the poor." Do you oppose means-testing Medicare (forget about Medicaid) and Social Security?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | May 28, 2011 4:43:49 PM

Having worked in a free clinic and an emergency room, let me point out that most of the health care costs the poor generate are from obesity-related diseases. For most of recorded history, rich people were fat, and poor people were thin. Let's not caricature the 50 million "poor" in America. They are not the untouchables dying of starvation and disease in the streets of India. Nobody who has personally worked with poor people has this view.

When Jesus said "the poor you will always have with you", maybe He had recognized that "poor" is a relative term, and as long as people have different jobs, interests, abilities, and wages, there would always be "the poor". Either that, or Jesus had no faith in socialism.

Posted by: TonyG | May 28, 2011 6:15:34 PM

I reject the view that everyone thinks that the budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor. The Bishops have not been lobbying for the fun of it. I favor means testing both programs (of course the details could make a difference). I oppose vouchers as a substitute for medicare. I think that cost containment measures in the medical field are critical.

Posted by: Steve Shiffrin | May 28, 2011 6:39:45 PM

If you are suggesting that the American poor are richer than the poor in India, I agree. But, if you are leaping from your anecdotal conclusions to the conclusion that the poor do not need help, I cannot agree. In a number of different capacities I have worked at a community kitchen in Ithaca that offers meals, outreach services, lawyers, nursing services, and other support to poor people. The poor are not a homogeneous group (some are obese; most are not); they are poor for many different reasons. But no one associated with our kitchen (which feeds 125 guests per day) who has eaten with our guests and has learned their stories could fairly conclude we should think that the Christs message about the poor does not apply to them.

Posted by: Steve Shiffrin | May 28, 2011 6:54:26 PM

According to the NIH, 68% of all adults in the United States are classified as either "overweight or obese". The highest rates are among the lowest incomes. I agree they need some help, but I disagree that it is inadequate.

You do realize the money is being borrowed from even poorer people in China? And must be repaid by generations not even born? Perhaps we disagree about the nature of Christ's message.

Posted by: TonyG | May 28, 2011 8:28:37 PM

It is certainly true that attempting to correct our budget problems by cutting the paltry 18% of the federal budget representing discretionary spending (the details of which are unclear, but let's assume some of that money goes to the poor) is a misguided attempt. We must correct the entitlement programs, programs that largely go to middle class and upper middle class recipients (with the obvious exception of Medicaid). I suppose I have seen 2 arguments about how Ryan's budget injures the poor. The first deals with his his entitlement reform provisions, i.e that is leaves poor recipients to the mercy of the private market. Frankly, I don't know how this argument stands up in light of his means-testing provisions. I think it is a consensus view (or let's say a center-left consensus view) that some costs must be shifted; that leaving Medicare as an open-ended entitlement is a losing proposition. But Ryan does incorporate the means-testing features which are designed to ensure the poor getting the biggest assistance. The second criticism deals with this tax provisions, i.e. the "reverse Robin Hood" argument that by refusing to let the Bush tax cuts expire, we are giving a boost to rich people while cutting services to poor people. First, I think Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have done a good job criticising Ryan for relying on rosy growth projections in his tax argument, but they also point out some of the problems with relying ONLY on a rate hike targeted at a small percentage of taxpayers. There argument amounts to the old adage that there are many ways to skin a cat. If you want to increase tax revenue (and we must), there are various ways to do so without devolving into the class rhetoric that the President has used so far, and which progressive Catholics have rallied around.

Posted by: Josh | May 31, 2011 1:07:46 PM

The idea that poor people are lazy, which Rand and Ryan espouse, is growing in popularity, unfortunately. I believe scapegoating poor people, or any powerless group without a voice, is pretty standard in times of economic or social trouble.

Posted by: Joseph Gladstone | Aug 24, 2011 12:31:14 PM