The Common Good

Our Moral Audit of the Budget

Sojomail - March 5, 2009


No one person will succeed him. You'll see a broader group of leaders with their own constituencies, but not a narrow band. ... [But] anyone who thinks evangelicals are going away as a social force is smoking something illegal.

- Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, when asked about who will succeed James Dobson as the leader of the Religious Right. Dobson announced his resignation as board chair of Focus on the Family last week. (Source: The Washington Times)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Our Moral Audit of the Budget

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Four years ago, faced with a disastrous federal budget proposal, Sojourners coined a phase, “budgets are moral documents.” That phrase has now entered the common lexicon, but it remains our fundamental principle. Budgets reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. They tell us what is most important and valued to those making the budget. So, it is important that we do a “values audit” of President Obama’s proposed budget, a “moral audit” of our priorities. Who benefits in this budget, what things are revealed as most important, and what things are less important? America’s religious communities are required to ask of any budget: what happens to the poor and most vulnerable -- especially, what becomes of the nation’s poorest children in these critical decisions?

The values of the American people should also be applied to the budget, e.g. fairness (everyone paying their fair share); opportunity for all Americans; fiscal, personal, and social responsibility; balancing important and different priorities; defining security more broadly than just military considerations, as it is related to economic and family security too; compassion and protection for the vulnerable; building community; and upholding the common good.

That’s a principle that has been forgotten in the past years. We have trusted in “the invisible hand” of the market to make everything turn out all right, but things too often haven’t turned out all right. The invisible hand let go of some things, like the common good. The idea that policies which benefit the wealthiest will eventually benefit everyone has proven false. The president’s budget is a step toward restoring the value of the common good to our policy. It is a step to rebalance our priorities, protect the vulnerable, and strengthen the middle.

It contains major investments in the president’s three priorities: significantly expanding health care coverage, focusing on climate change reduction and developing renewable energy, and investing in education -- early childhood programs, strengthening and reforming public schools, expanded opportunities for college -- all of which will benefit low-income people. There are also specific changes in important areas such as tax policy, food and nutrition programs, housing, needed aid to veterans, prisoner re-entry, global food security, and increased foreign aid for combating pandemic disease. It’s a budget aimed at redressing the imbalances.

The growing inequality in America over decades is a sin of biblical proportions, and it’s time to bring our principles of social justice to bear. As columnist E.J. Dionne wrote,

The central issue in American politics now is whether the country should reverse a three-decade-long trend of rising inequality in incomes and wealth. Politicians will say lots of things in the coming weeks, but they should be pushed relentlessly to address the bottom-line question: Do they believe that a fairer distribution of capitalism's bounty is essential to repairing a sick economy? Everything else is a subsidiary issue.

It is that question that should guide our moral audit of the budget. The fundamental moral question in the upcoming budget debate is whether to begin to reverse the rapid and massive increase in American inequality which has grown over the past thirty years -- and has dramatically increased during the past eight. I believe it is time to stop helping the undeserving rich, under the now demonstrably false assertion that this will then benefit the rest of us. When the top 1 percent of the country now get 20 percent of its income, control 33 percent of its wealth, and pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than their receptionists do (as Warren Buffet has pointed out)—something has gone terribly wrong in America. The new Obama budget is the first and dramatic step to fix all that, and turn the nation in a different direction.

The new budget proposed by the White House is a dramatic step in the direction of the common good, with strong support for the middle of America, real help for the poorest among us, and the proposition that the wealthiest pay their fare share. And my prediction is that many in the faith community, especially those on the front lines of serving the poor, will rally around the principles and priorities of this budget, bringing their energy and advocacy to bear on the debate that now lies ahead. Because this will not just be a policy debate, but also a moral one; the prayers of the faithful -- along with their watchful eyes, willing hands, and ready feet -- will surround the congressional budget process over the next few months.

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