Imagine you are taking a Christian ethics class, and as your professor I give you this multiple-choice question on a quiz: ‘Which is more ethical: A) turn away cancer patients from needed chemotherapy treatment, or B) decrease airport delays for the flying public?’
If you answered “B” you would get an “F” on the quiz, especially if we were studying the work of John Rawls and his ethical theories of justice as fairness.
Last week, however, Congress chose “B” and got a good grade from the flying public, i.e. wealthier Americans, for being unfair in reversing only a small part of the economic pain caused by the sequester, while leaving the rest of the cuts in place.
Just days ago, our chronically dysfunctional Congress pulled together and in a stunning show of bipartisanship quickly passed legislation to end the sequestration mandated furloughs of air traffic controllers that were causing long waits at airports.
The only actual merit of the sequester, the mindless, across-the-board spending cuts that were supposed to be so abhorrent that Congress would act to avoid them, was that they were mindless. The cuts and the pain were across the board, from the Pentagon to kids kicked off of Head Start. There’s actually no moral parity in that, per Rawls, but it was a kind of shared sacrifice.
Now, Congress has seen fit to repeal just part of the sequester, the part that affects them, long lines at airports, and their wealthier constituents who fly a lot. But they chose to leave unaddressed the truly morally repugnant results of the sequester such as denying chemotherapy to Medicare patients at some cancer clinics.
Let’s review. Which is the more unethical? Causing people to die from lack of chemotherapy due to cancelled funding for treatment, or causing people to wait longer in a line at the airport?
That isn’t really even an ethical dilemma. It’s a moral catastrophe.
Repeal the entire sequester. There is no choice at this point, when the worst effects of these mindless, across-the-board cuts are falling on the sick, the young, the hungry, the pregnant, and the elderly, and the slim cuts that affect members of Congress directly, or their donor constituents, are being repealed.
Austerity, of which the sequester is a version, is not only morally debased, it is bad economics as Robert Reich repeatedly argues. Really, do we need any more evidence than the economic tailspin of Europe and their catastrophically high unemployment rates to recognize that austerity only makes economic recession worse, not better? The continuing conservative adherence to austerity-type economics in the U.S. is political, not economic, as Paul Krugman often argues, and just did again.
Here’s another irony. The deficit is going down, down, down. A combination of lower spending and our soft economic recovery, combined with increased tax revenue, is lowering the deficit. Even the International Monetary Fund thinks sequestration, therefore, poses more a risk to our overall recovery than it is an aid.
Repealing the small part of sequestration that affected Congress itself and the donor class, while letting cancer patients go without chemotherapy, seniors go without meals on wheels, pregnant mothers go without nutritional assistance, and children get kicked out of Head Start programs, is a new low in our debased public morality.
It will likely get worse. Now that Congress and the president have tacitly agreed they can repeal small parts of sequestration without undoing the whole, more pet projects will surely be removed from the sequester piece by piece.
Mark my words. Funding restoration for the Pentagon will surely be placed in that pet project pipeline. Next to flying home to their constituents, making sure spending for war never suffers is close to the hearts of many in Congress.
Consider, by contrast, John Rawls’ famous statement from “A Theory of Justice“:
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought…[Justice] does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”
Read that and weep for the society we have become.
Thistlethwaite is former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008) and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She is author, most recently, of “#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (And Did) About Money and Power.”