AS THE U.S. Congress and the president repeatedly battle over the debt ceiling and contemplate cuts to Social Security and Medicare, austerity has begun to sound like common sense: "Families tighten their belts during hard times, and so must government."
However, "common sense" in our media age is carefully manufactured, and its underlying analogy doesn't always hold up to scrutiny. "Living within our means," for most families, includes debt financing for housing, cars, and college. Families having a hard time paying their bills may indeed tighten their belts—but they seek more income first, and cut care for children and the sick last. In contrast, federal budget austerity arguments always focus on spending, ignoring the revenue crisis born of decades of tax cuts.
Christians have a more profound reason to question "austerity measures": They conflict with our faith in God's abundance. In parable after parable—the prodigal son, the unforgiving debtor, Lazarus and the rich man—Jesus challenges us to emulate God's generosity. It is the theme of that most eucharistic miracle, the loaves and fishes. How to live in the light of God's abundance is never an easy question, but we must be open to its logic in every area of human existence, including our personal lives, our economy, and our government.
There is, needless to say, a deep contrast between Christian notions of abundance, rooted in God's boundless creative gift, and the modern field of economics, which bases itself on the principle that commodities are scarce. Yet there are also resonances between abundance and modern macroeconomics (the study of whole economies) as it developed in the New Deal period and the first three decades after World War II—especially in the great postwar era of shared prosperity, which saw an explosive expansion of the middle class.
During that period, everyone gave to the national common good, and everyone received—not just through strongly redistributive taxation, but through shared, unprecedented economic growth. And it wasn't simply the "invisible hand" of the marketplace that guided growth: The market was fostered by government's investment in infrastructure and education.