Debt, Courage, and Wisdom

Body: 

March 11, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Recently, a number of evangelical leaders joined together to approve the Call for Intergenerational Justice, an important expression of Christian conscience.  I endorsed that document as well.

It makes a two-fold case.  First, the accumulation of public debt, at the federal and state level, has become a profound moral concern.  It is neither wise nor just to burden future generations with our own excess and irresponsibility. And interest payments on debt, along with unsustainable entitlement commitments, are squeezing our ability to provide essential government services in the present. 

Second, the statement argues that the manner in which spending and debt are reduced is also a moral issue.  Though the role and size of government must be limited—and wasteful or counterproductive programs are never justified—budget cuts should not come at the expense of the most vulnerable people, in America and around the world.

The Call does not set out detailed policies to achieve these goals.  The signers come from a variety of political backgrounds that result in a variety of political priorities.  But this diversity is a strength of the document.  Even people who disagree on many things agree on the need to reduce public debt in a responsible way.  

Reaction to the Call has been instructive.  Some have emphasized defense cuts as the main answer to our debt crisis.  This is understandable.  It is also simplistic and mistaken.  Some defense cuts are likely, and the Department of Defense is preparing for them.  But the overall level of defense spending is determined by the current and future strategic requirements of our country.  Maintaining order and restraining evil, in my view, are biblical roles for government.  And for a century, America has assumed an important stabilizing role in the world. 

I just returned from Afghanistan where I spent time with the men and women of our Army and Marines, who are fighting the forces of a vicious ideology, an ideology that would enslave women and export violence to the world.  The people of the American military deserve our respect and support.

There is, however, another response made to the Call.  Some on the political right argue that our debt crisis is so deep that every program must be reduced—that we can’t afford to pick and choose. In this view, we need to cut, not only entitlements and wasteful programs, but hunger programs and AIDS funding for Africa. 

This view has a superficial appeal: let everyone bear an equal burden.  But it is really the lazy abdication of governing.  To govern is to choose.  And some choices are more justified than others.  Our deficit problem, in the long term, is an entitlement problem, driven by health cost inflation and an aging population.  We don’t have a deficit crisis because America spends too much on child nutrition or AIDS drugs.  To pretend otherwise is to confuse the issue and to place burdens where they can be least sustained. Our government needs both courage and wise priorities as it reduces spending.  And that is precisely the point we made in the Call

These are difficult issues that resist the simplistic slogans of left or right. There are no easy ideological answers.  But there is a great need for Christians to responsibly, persistently engage the problem of debt in our nation.  

—Michael J. Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.