Saturday, March 6, 2010

Not Funny but Interesting, part 2

During Lent and the upcoming Easter season, I’m working on a curriculum project called “Faithful Christian Citizens.” The project’s sponsors and I hope this material will encourage Christians to be cognizant of important world issues as a way to be faithful to the "two great commandments." The following is nothing more deep than some personal note-taking, "outtakes" from my project. I find these topics interesting as I try to follow and understand what’s going on in the country.

For instance, I read an interesting article in The Economist, in which the author discusses some of the recent congressional impasses and notes that “it is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favors. If, instead of handing of health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill. Once Mr Clinton learned the advantages of co-operating with the Republicans, the country was governed better.” (Feb. 20-26, 2010 issue, p. 11). (I noticed a similar complaint online today:

In another article that I‘ve read, this one in Newsweek (March 1, 2010), author Peter Beinhart discusses how the GOP has, since the beginning of the Clinton presidency, adopted the “government is the problem” strategy. This was not a GOP strategy during the Reagan and Bush 41 years; for instance, moderate Republicans “helped cut big bipartisan deals like the 1986 tax-reform bill, which simplified the tax code, and the 1990 Clean Air Act, which set new limits on pollution.” At the beginning of the Clinton years, “the Gingrich Republicans learned that the vicious circle [of filibustering] worked.” What that means is that GOP congressmen “have told Americans that they can’t trust government with their health care, and once again, their own actions [of halting legislation and using polarizing tactics] have helped convinced Americans that what they say is true.” But since they are the party out of power, voter anger becomes directed at the Democrats (pp. 22-23; the whole article is pp. 20-24).

What about the matter of “big government”? The promise of tax cuts and small government is still an ideal for many people.

McClatchy correspondent Steven Thomma notes that President Reagan set a vision for a smaller government. Unfortunately President Reagan, too, found the vision difficult to achieve; during his administration government spending increased by about 69%, especially because of the 92% increase in defense spending. Thomma goes on to note that, under Reagan, “the size of the government as a share of total economic production had shrunk slightly, from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent.” Under President Clinton, defense spending slowed considerably and thus government spending decreased. That, plus the strong economy of the 1990s, means that “government’s size as a percentage of the economy dropped from 21.4 percent to 18.5 percent during the Clinton years.” Under President Bush, in turn, government spending increased 68%, connected to the 126% defense spending increase. (See his article “It only looks different,“ at

During President Reagan’s terms, the economy came out of a recession, but, as columnist Paul Krugman writes, “while the rich got much richer, there was little sustained economic improvement for most Americans. By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been a decade before--and the poverty rate had actually risen.” In other words, the benefits of tax cuts for the wealthy did not “trickle down” to the middle class as hoped ( But I've read some other authors who argue, yes, the economy did improve, because among other things the earlier, high rate of inflation was curbed.

Politicians aren’t usually, or possibly ever candid about their own party’s agenda and history. In the same piece as above, Thomma quotes one GOP congressman who accused the Democrats of a “spending spree.” In actuality, both parties support billions of dollars of spending, but (to oversimplify) Republicans tend to give priority to spending for defense, while Democrats tend to prioritize spending for social programs like education, benefits for the needy, and so on. One could argue persuasively that both a strong military and a strong social programs are necessary for an overall healthy society: the common good for all citizens, and sound national security. One can also argue very persuasively that deficit spending hampers American economic growth, just as credit card debit hampers a family’s abilities to prosper.

Still another writer, Robert Reich, gets to the point of the matter, I think: our problem is not so much big government but “small democracy.” Public decision making should be open, voters should be able to hear appropriate debate about big issues, and leaders must be accountable to voters for their decisions. Reich worries about the secrecy that presently characterizes both the president’s programs and congressional debates, as well as the strong roll of “lobbyists representing moneyed interests” in Washington. The long-term answer is to “recommit ourselves to cleaning up democracy” (

How do you do that, however? I suppose we can become more aware of the issues (as I’m trying to become) and to write our state and federal leaders (which I haven’t done for a long time, ever since I tried to get my congresswoman not to support the Clinton impeachment). You have to be really careful about burnout and discouragement, though.

It’s simple to say, I guess, but a good “thy will be done” prayer helps me to keep perspective about the imperfections of both political parties, and to have a balanced view of things. As Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, in far scarier times than these, God has his own purposes, and God’s purposes may be wholly different from what you think they are or should be--no matter how right we think we are. Any effort from us Christians to help our democracy can start by affirming Proverbs 3:5-6.

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