The Common Good

Woe to You, Legislators!

Sojomail - April 14, 2011


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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Woe to You, Legislators!

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It is reported that Congressman Paul Ryan makes every member of his staff read philosopher Ayn Rand, the shameless promoter of the gospel of aggressive self-interest. This makes sense to me as I read Congressman Ryan's new budget proposal. I wish he had his staff reading the Bible instead.

While widely lauded by conservatives, Congressman Ryan's budget isn't really about deficit reduction. It's about choices -- choices that will determine what kind of a country we become. And Paul Ryan has made the choice to hurt people who don't have the political clout to defend themselves. Two-thirds of the long-term budget cuts that Ryan proposed are directed at modest and low-income people, as well as the poorest of the poor at home and abroad. At the same time, he proposed tax cuts up to 30 percent for some of our country's wealthiest corporations. Let me say that again: Two-thirds of the cuts come at the expense of already struggling people and families, while corporations posting record profits get tax breaks. In short, the most vulnerable members of society are being attacked by Ryan and his supporters. This makes them bullies.

In dramatic contrast, Ryan has chosen to help the people who need help the least. Wealthy individuals and companies reap a windfall of benefits in Ryan's plan -- with tax cuts and breaks, continued subsidies and loopholes for every powerful special interest, and increased corporate welfare payments from the government. Congressman Ryan and his supporters have carefully and faithfully rewarded the rich people who make their campaign contributions, and, in most cases, have also rewarded themselves as rich people. This makes them corrupt.

And, as self-professed budget hawks, they have completely ignored the most consistently egregious, wasteful, and morally compromised area of the whole federal budget -- our endless and unaccountable military spending. Paul Ryan and the Republicans would cut nothing from the Pentagon profligacy. This makes them hypocrites.

You may think that my language sounds too strong: "bullies", "corrupt", "hypocrites." But listen to the prophet Isaiah:

Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims -- laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?  (Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message)

Ryan's budget seems to follow, almost line by line, the "oppressive statues" Isaiah rails against. Ryan's budget slashes health care for the poor and elderly by gutting Medicaid and undermining Medicare, and cuts funding for food stamps, early childhood development programs, low-income housing assistance, and educational programs for students.

Cuts of this magnitude for people of modest and low-incomes will result in a direct increase of poverty and misery in America. Furthermore, poverty-focused international assistance proven to save lives is under continued attack. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said, not all cuts are equal because some will lead to "a fever and a small coffin."

Simply put, the Ryan budget is a bonanza for the rich and devastation for the poor, and it will never be accepted by the religious community. And I don't believe Ryan's budget expresses the values of the American people. I just don't believe it. (You can click here if it doesn't represent your values.)

Of course, many Americans, including in the faith community, believe that rising deficits are immoral and a threat to our future.  But how you reduce a deficit is also a moral issue, and to do so by further impoverishing the poor in order to add more wealth to the wealthy is not an acceptable political or moral strategy.

Ayn Rand said, "Money is the barometer of a society's virtue," and she made no apology for not liking the teachings of Jesus. But for those of us who do aim to live out the teachings of Jesus, the Paul Ryan budget is a moral non-starter.

Yesterday, as President Obama offered his budget, he both failed and succeeded. What Obama failed to say was that we are currently wasting lives and billions of dollars in Afghanistan on a strategy that fails to make us any safer. Today, I am joining with some fiscal conservatives and Republican members of Congress at a "ReThink Afghanistan" press conference. We don't agree on a lot of other budget issues, but we are united in our belief that we are wasting lives and money with misguided strategy in Afghanistan. For those who truly care about the deficit, I believe this is the first place we should start cutting.

The president succeeded yesterday by making this important statement: "In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That's who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That's not right. And it's not going to happen as long as I'm president."

This last line was the clearest message we've heard for some time from the White House. It's a message President Obama will have to repeat over and over again in the months ahead against all the pressures to compromise. Presidents sometimes have to draw some clear lines in the sand, and the time for this president to do that is now.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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Sojourners is excited to be a partner for the inaugural Wild Goose Festival, an event about justice, spirituality, and creativity that takes place June 23-26 in Shakori Hills, North Carolina. A wild goose is the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit -- wild and unpredictable, but holy at the same time. 

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Redisctricting and Public Participation

From now through 2013, electoral district boundaries, which affect who represents you in Congress and other state and local governments, will be readjusted to address changing demographics. The stakes are as high as ever for this arcane process, which affects control of legislatures and communities' representation. But for this round of redistricting, new, open-source mapmaking software holds the promise of unprecedented public participation.

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