Book Review: Fixing the Moral Deficit | Sojourners

Book Review: Fixing the Moral Deficit

Fixing the Moral Deficit, screenshot, InterVarsity Press
Fixing the Moral Deficit, screenshot, InterVarsity Press

Fixing the Moral Deficit
©2012 by Ron Sider
Intervarsity Press
List Price: $15.00

Rep. Paul Ryan’s (Chairman of House Budget Committee) FY2012 plan, A Roadmap for America’s Future, garnered princely praise in early April 2011, but it was quickly trailed by intense scrutiny when Ryan’s botched math and skewed priorities became apparent upon his budget’s review. Hailed as visionary and courageous upon submission, Ryan’s budget plan ultimately revealed his ideologically entrenched disregard for the poor.

A few weeks ago President Barack Obama announced his FY2013 Budget. Within a few weeks, Ryan will submit his FY2013 budget plan for review. Dr. Ronald J. Sider’s new book, Fixing the Moral Deficit (February 2012), comes just in time!

Sider has offered practical, balanced, and highly informed guidance for Christian engagement in the public sphere since publication of his first and seminal book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977). Sider draws from his Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America (Sider, 1999) to lay the philosophical foundation for this latest analysis in Fixing the Moral Deficit.

Sider starts with a simple premise: We have a deficit crisis. We also have a poverty crisis. Together these crises are producing a moral crisis in America.

Sider disparages politicians who pretend America’s escalating debt doesn’t matter, but in like fashion, Sider cuts down to size politicians who propose budget plans that balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

In Fixing the Moral Deficit, Sider lays out the hard economic facts in tandem with clear biblical principles for engagement. The first third of his book lays out the economic and biblical facts. A compilation of many of the most recent stats on wealth, poverty, taxes, and American inequity, this section could serve as a handy reference tool for any wonk, worker, or student wanting to understand America’s economic universe today.

Dog-eared to death, I found this section full of “did-you-know” kinds of facts and graphs. As study after study on the state of America’s economy was released in 2011, many of these facts were quoted by wonks and pundits in the political world. Yet, I’ve never seen them all together in one place. And I had never seen such a clear contrast drawn between the time periods 1960-1979 and 1980-2010 (pp. 38-39). Did you know that from 1960-1979 every economic bracket in America enjoyed a major increase in its income? And did you know the greatest increase went to the bottom 20 percent of income earners, whose income increased by 116 percent? And did you know the top 5 percent also increased income by 86 percent. Now contrast that with 1980-2010 when the bottom 20 percent of earners experienced a -7.4 percent drop in income, and the top 5 percent increased their income by 72.7 percent.  What made the difference in the two time periods?

Sider sites key government programs launched in the former, including the G.I. Bill, infrastructure programs, the institution of a minimum wage, Medicare and Medicaid.  Each of these programs effectively strengthened the middle class and raised families out of poverty in the first time period. In contrast, the second saw the weakening of these programs along with the weakening of labor unions and a marked increase in personal family debt to keep up. (pp. 40-41)

Next, Sider engages the core philosophical and ethical questions, such as:

  • Who are persons?Here Sider argues that we are neither created as completely autonomous individuals, as Ayn Rand would have us believe, nor were we created to be completely subordinate to the larger community, as Marx would have us believe. Rather, a biblical perspective would demand a both/and approach.
  • Am I responsible for my neighbor? Here Sider argues that the bible requires that charity and justice start at home, but must extend outward to encompass the whole world: “For the Christian, the neighbor we must love—responsibly and self-sacrificially—includes everyone in the world.”(p. 49)
  • Should we have special concern for the poor? After engaging the intricacies of the argument, Sider states, “God sides with the oppressed to end the oppression so that oppressed and oppressor may become whole.” (p. 52)
  • What is justice? Centered around the Hebrew words mishpat and tsedaqah, Sider argues:
    • “First, justice is not only procedural but also distributive…” (p. 54)
    • “Second, justice does not require equal outcomes (of income, wealth, etc.), but it does demand that all have access to society’s productive resources …” (p. 54)
    • “Third … justice demands that society provide [children, the elderly, the disabled] with a generous sufficiency.” (p. 54)
  • How much inequality is unacceptable or desirable?Here Sider again avoids ideological extremes by focusing on the practical question of whether the current level of inequality is helping the whole of society—especially the poor.
  • What is the role of government in overcoming poverty?Here Sider draws from the foundation he laid in Just Generosity where he argues that every sector of society has a role to play, and that includes government. Through a survey of Psalms, Micah, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah, Sider concludes that “sometimes … government must step in precisely because other societal institutions fail to do what they should or because they lack the resources or the authority to do what is needed.”

Finally, Sider applies his philosophical and ethical principles to the real-life question of the moment—the current American budget appropriations debate. Granted, because of the timing of the book’s authorship and release, Sider could not apply his principles directly to the FY2013 budget, but he does the next best thing. He parcels through President Obama’s and Rep. Ryan’s FY2012 proposals, teasing out the good, the bad, and the incredibly ugly. The reader is offered this gift as a roadmap of sorts for consideration during current and future budget debates.

I thoroughly enjoyed Fixing the Moral Budget. By force of habit, I dog-ear pages I don’t want to forget. About halfway through this book, I realized nearly every page was bent back with scribble in the margins. Thank you, Ron Sider, for serving the church, once again, through your careful reflections for such a time as this.

I'm blogging on this book as part of a conversation at the Patheos Book Club.

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