We have come to an impasse in the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling because of several conceptual errors in our public discourse. These errors were most glaring in the remarks recently delivered by Speaker of the House John Boehner in his response to President Obama. The largest conceptual error is the idea that the government of a constitutional representative democracy is different from the people. Boehner said, "You know I've always believed the bigger the government, the smaller the people."
What does this mean? The government is composed of the people, and if people are paying attention and voting according to their own interests, the government ought to work toward the happiness of the people. The problem is that too many Americans have bought into this conceptual error that the government is some kind of leviathan, a monster that exists to take away their liberties. This is nonsense. A correction of another conceptual error in Boehner's presentation makes my point.
In his response to the president, Boehner spoke about what he called a "spending binge" that he claimed has run up the national debt. He said:
Here's what we got for that spending binge, a massive health-care bill that most Americans never asked for. A "stimulus" bill that was more effective in producing material for late night comedians than it was in producing jobs. And a national debt that has gotten so out of hand it has sparked a crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours.
Let us be clear: The debt ceiling crisis is purely artificial. The problem of the debt is real, but it is not the most pressing crisis at the moment. The most pressing crisis is jobs.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the "Stimulus Bill") contained the following provisions among others. (Click here to see the entire list.) Some $116.2 billion went to new tax credits for individuals. Money went to the states to help with Medicaid, education and job training, health insurance for unemployed people (COBRA), transportation, to build and improve rail systems and public transportation, economic recovery in distressed areas, unemployment compensation, state and local law enforcement, repair and modernization of public housing, repair and improvement of public lands and parks. Money in the Recovery Act went to individuals for home weatherization programs. Money went to the National Science Foundation, Homeland Security, Head Start, and early childhood education; to finance rural water and waste facilities; construct and repair veteran's hospitals and cemeteries; to help states collect child support; and for technical upgrades in schools.
Further, Boehner is wrong about health care. It has yet to be fully implemented. Some 50 million Americans live without health insurance, and this is a life and death situation.
The problem with the recovery act for progressives such as me is that it was too small. Boehner spoke of being a small business man, and that his experience taught him that businesses have to live within their means. As a businessman, he ought to know that cash coming in does not always match cash going out, thus, even the healthiest businesses need a line of credit. Such is the case with the United States of America.
As the list of spending in the Recovery Act indicates, the government is all of us working together to help all of us. It is especially important that we keep the least of us ever in mind. This is not an us against it proposition, the big, evil government versus the common people. The government is us.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.