October 02, 2012

Getting real about the economy

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

Music lessons, besides training the ear, cultivating good taste and creating a base for enjoyment and expression in later life, develop the brain’s capacity for language, math, spatial relations, discipline and creativity. I could not be more sold on the value of musical training in a good education.

Yet when my husband lost his job for a time a few years back, piano lessons were one of the first budget items slashed.

It broke my heart, but there is such a thing as reality, and sometimes priorities and even needs slap up against it.

A couple of years ago the Greek economy utterly collapsed. Its debt equaled the size of its economy. Think of our Wall Street crisis, only instead of a few banks being overextended, it was an entire country.

No nation was willing to loan Greece more money unless its government first made good faith efforts to regain control over its own budget.

Forced to slash spending or cede financial control of Greece to bureaucrats in the European Union, the socialist government raised taxes and cut government salaries and programs.

Faced with the loss of their own economic and political sovereignty, massive numbers of Greek citizens took to the streets … to protest the program cuts! “The country has no money … cut us our checks!” seemed to be the rallying cry.

I often have the sense that our current economic debate is similarly unhinged from the reality. We talk about the morality of cutting this or that program, but rarely about the immorality of carrying unsustainable debt.

Repaying debt is an obligation of justice, after all. Failing to do so simply shifts our rightful burden onto others: to other nations; to our own poor, who suffer disproportionately from the inflation and stagnation caused by our debt; and onto future generations.

As Pope Benedict XVI says in “Light of the World,” commenting on the colossal debt we and other nations are running up:

“We are living at the expense of future generations. In this respect it is plain we are living in untruth. We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.”

Even as we Catholics make our contribution to the national discussion on the economy, exploring the moral implications and tensions among the principles of preferential option for the poor, solidarity and subsidiarity (and often having to set that debate aside to defend the unborn and the conscience rights of all Americans), the conversation remains frustratingly abstract.

Consider these facts.

• In 2010 for the first time, the Social Security program began paying out more benefits than it is taking in revenues, so it is on course for bankruptcy.

• A study by the independent Tax Foundation found that in 2004, 60 percent of American households were receiving more benefits from the government than they were paying in taxes.

• In 2010 that number rose to 70 percent. That means only 3 out of 10 families in this country are fully supporting themselves – and they are supporting or supplementing all the rest of us, too. On our present course, that number is likely to shrink to two or even one out of 10.

• The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects our spending will drive our debt to the equivalent of 90 percent of our economy – 90 percent of total GDP – by 2020.

Talk about unsustainable growth!

Insert here the obligatory pro-life note that had we engendered a younger generation large enough to support our generous social welfare programs, we wouldn’t be in this mess. (Thank you, Planned Parenthood.)

Be that as it may, whatever we may think about entitlement programs in the abstract, as a purely practical matter, reality sets a limit – as it did for the Greeks and the Tetis – on what government can deliver, no matter what laws are passed.

Reputable economists on the Left and Right agree (differing only about how soon) collapse will come without change.

Our generation faces a choice. We can accept some changes and cuts in programs now that can save our social programs for everyone in the long run.

 Or we can discover the hard way how little actual safety lies in our safety nets – and what then will happen to the poor and disadvantaged? 

(Note: a version of this column originally appeared in Faith & Family magazine)

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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