The presidential election has come down to this theological question: Do some people simply deserve to suffer economically? The dueling economic plans of the GOP and President Obama are driven less by practicalities on exactly how to create jobs, than about whether people deserve to be helped or not.
It’s a morality play.
There can be no real debate over what works to create jobs, help those who are out of work or in foreclosure. We’ve known what works to pull the country out of a massive economic downturn since the 1930’s. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman makes this case persuasively in his new book, “End This Depression Now!”
Krugman believes that austerity is “job-destroying.” His prescription for us to get out of what he believes we should start calling a depression, though not the “Great Depression,” is expansionist spending. What worked in the Great Depression, he argues, is what we need to be doing now: spend what it takes now to create jobs, and don’t obsess about the debt. The time to obsess about the debt is after the economy is booming again. A debt-obsessed conservative austerity approach, what he labels “job-destroying austerity,” will just hinder job creation now and long-term.
In weak moments, political conservatives actually acknowledge that stimulus is how we get our economy going. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) admitted as much on Sunday on CNN, conceding that President Obama’s stimulus measures helped his state weather the economic crisis.
So why not simply do more of this?
Conservatives are out to punish those in need, Peter S. Goodman, business editor of the Huffington Post, has suggested. He has given a name to those who hold this view; he calls them “bleeding cash conservatives” to contrast with the stereotype that liberals (Krugman would be accused of this) are “bleeding heart liberals.”
Goodman argues, “We are living through what may be called the age of ‘bleeding cash conservatism,’ a time when powerful and mean-spirited authorities waste taxpayer money on their own version of feel-good policies that punish vulnerable people who have landed in trouble.”
Goodman gives some striking examples. He sees this notion at work, for example, in the “continued unwillingness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac…to write down loan balances for underwater borrowers (those who owe the bank more than their homes are worth).” Yet housing experts and economists inside these institutions admit that “slashing” these mortgages would be good for business, by limiting foreclosures, keeping more people in their homes and stabilizing home prices. But they still won’t do it.
Bush administration “holdover” Edward J. DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, according to Goodman, “has repeatedly rebuffed appeals to pragmatism and arithmetic, instead preferring to wage ideological war against troubled borrowers” even when the Obama administration has “sweetened the pot” by tripling the financial incentives to Fannie and Freddie.
DeMarco, in Goodman’s view, is more interested in teaching a “moral parable” than in helping fellow Americans.
Conservatives in Congress and in state houses across the land are working from the script of this same morality play when, for example, they seek to limit the continuation of emergency unemployment benefits for the group suffering the most, the long-term unemployed.
But this kind of government spending not only helps the unemployed who are truly suffering, some even suffering hunger and homelessness, it helps the economy directly. Unemployment checks are the best sort of money to spend for stimulating the economy, because as soon as people out of work for a long time get this money they spend it on basic needs. But Goodman observes, “Legislators in charge of the purse strings would rather pander to those inclined to see jobless people as deadbeats and losers than acknowledge the reality that people who have no money are starving the economy of spending power and limiting job creation for everyone.”
What makes Peter Goodman’s business article a theological argument is that “bleeding cash conservatives” not only cut programs that help people in need, he contends they are “they are eager to spend money to make sure that those in difficult circumstances are effectively penalized, putting faith in the moral curative of other people’s suffering.”
“Faith in the moral curative of other people’s suffering” is a theological argument. The idea that suffering is somehow ‘good for you’ and that you will learn to be good by suffering, has crept into our politics and is being used to justify punitive policies that carry out this punishment in economic terms.
Let’s be clear. This is political theology, not one based on a serious conservative theological perspective. Conservative theologians can embrace suffering as a way to deepen faith. Thus Baptist theologian John Stephen Piper will write, in his “Tested by Fire,” “When we embrace more affliction for the worth of Christ, there will be more fruit in the worship of Christ.”
But the idea that economic suffering will “teach the poor a lesson” is a self-serving justification, and not really a sound Christian theological argument at all. Whatever may be the result of suffering in the view of someone like John Stephen Piper, he and other serious conservative Christians do not call for us to deliberately inflict suffering on others, but to have compassion for them.
Christian theology, liberal or conservative, takes human suffering seriously. That is why I start every class I teach on Christian theology with this statement: Theology begins where the pain is. When people are in pain, they ask ‘where is God?’ and ‘where is my neighbor?’ This is the real morality play of our time.
That is why I was impressed by Paul Krugman’s new book; Krugman is not a theologian, but he can sometimes seem like it. He dedicates his new book on why we need an economic stimulus to the unemployed, and the first chapter is a poignant and evocative description of how unemployment causes so much suffering, and harms the bodies, minds and spirits of those who cannot find work.
President Obama has been calling on Congress for nearly a year to pass all of his jobs bill; he reiterated that call in his Saturday radio address. He focused on the numbers of Americans who are “struggling to pay the bills” and said they deserved the full attention of Congress.
The day after the president’s call to help struggling Americans, Gov. Paul LePage (R) of Maine, speaking at that state’s GOP convention, received an enthusiastic standing ovation from his fellow Republicans for saying that all able-bodied out-of-work welfare recipients need to “get off the couch” and go find employment.
A standing ovation for denigrating job seekers is as clear an example of this punitive attitude of punish the jobless for their own joblessness as you can find.
Christine Hastedt, public policy director at Maine Equal Justice Partners, called the Maine governor’s remarks “a gross insult to working people who get up every day and become discouraged by the end of the day, because there’s not a job for them.”
“We talk to people every day,” said Hastedt. “There are not enough jobs for the people who want them. There aren’t enough hours in the jobs for people who need them. These are jobs that don’t provide health care, and certainly don’t provide child care. Those are services that people need to get even the jobs that they could get. Nevertheless, he’s cutting those safety net benefits that make it possible for people to work.”
This is the morality play of this presidential election season. There is some good news, however. Americans are not merely watching this play, they have a chance as voters to write the last act.