Monday, August 06, 2012

Sermon: "Austerity as Idolatry" (Delivered 8-5-12)

The reading is from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Austerity as Ideology” from her 2012 book When I Was A Child I Read Books.

Austerity is the big word throughout the West these days, with the implicit claim that whatever the Austerity managers take to be inessential is inessential indeed, and that whatever can be transformed from public wealth into private affluence is suddenly an insupportable public burden and should and must be put on the block. Everywhere the crisis of the private financial system has been transformed into a tale of slovenly and overweening government that perpetuates and is perpetuated by a dependent and demanding population. This is an amazing transformation of the terms in which our circumstance is to be understood. For about ten days the crisis was interpreted as a consequence of the ineptitude of the highly paid, and then it transmogrified into a grudge against the populace at large, whose lassitude was bearing the society down to ruin… In the strange alembic of this moment, the populace at large is thought of by a significant part of this same population as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their “values.” There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.

Austerity has been turned against institutions and customs that have been major engines of wealth creation, because they are anomalous in terms of a radically simple economics… The alienation, the downright visceral frustration, of the new American ideologues, the bone in their craw, is the unacknowledged fact that America has never been an especially capitalist country. The postal system, the land grant provision for public education, the national park system, the Homestead Act, the graduated income tax, the Social Security system, the G.I. Bill – all of these were and are massive distributions or redistributions of wealth meant to benefit the population at large. Even “the electrification of the countryside,” Lenin’s great and unrealized dream, was achieved in America by a federal program begun in 1936… These arrangements are pragmatic in nature, and therefore expressive of an effective freedom at odd with ideology. But the ideologues consider such things a straying from the true path.

About a year ago I took a trip out to Topeka to attend a clergy organizing event. Our meeting was held at the Topeka Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter run by evangelical Christians that sleeps nearly 300 people each night and serves over 500 free meals daily. About a third of us in the room were religious liberals, including a Unitarian minister, a Jewish rabbi, and several pastors of liberal Christian congregations – UCC, Disciples, and so on. About a third of us in the room were ministers of African American churches – missionary Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and so on. And, a third of us in the room were extremely conservative white evangelical Christians. This made for a frustrating gathering. The meeting was called by community organizers who were interested in learning whether there could be a broad-based faith movement to advocate for poverty and health services in Kansas.

The meeting began with the director of the Topeka Rescue Mission speaking and the gathering quickly became surreal. The director passed out a one page handout. The letterhead at the top of the page was from a law firm in Louisiana. The subject of the memo was the national debt. The memo performed a little exercise in which it asked what it would look like if our country was like a household. Take the United States budget and the national debt and divide it by 100 million, knock off eight zeroes. The memo announced that the US government is like a family that makes $21,000 per year but spends $37,000 per year, thus adding an additional $16,000 in debt to its existing debt of $140,000. The director of the homeless shelter parroted the Louisiana law firm in concluding that the only responsible thing for the government to do is to slash its spending. Unfortunately, this would cause a tidal wave of people, a flood of families, searching for the meals and cots of the Rescue Mission. It is inevitable.

There were a lot of things happening in this exchange. My sermon this morning will explore what was actually going on in that room, and about what is going on in our state and country. I believe that what was going on in that room is a form of economic idolatry. And, for the next twenty minutes or so we’re going to be exploring the intersection of economics and theology, politics and psychology.

The conservative evangelical Christians in the room, politically speaking, were Dominionists. They believe that this is a Christian country, that Christians should hold all elected offices, and that we should all follow a Christian legal code. This is a group of people who look extremely favorably upon the Kansas governor and legislature. At the same time, folks like the director of the Topeka Rescue Mission are suffering from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is what happens when you hold thoughts or ideas or beliefs that are incompatible. When you experience this, the result is discomfort, anxiety, and restlessness. The psychologists who study cognitive dissonance tell us that when the discomfort becomes strong enough, we do one of two things. We either change our beliefs or we seek out additional information that makes our beliefs consonant again.

Here are the thoughts causing the cognitive dissonance that the conservative evangelical Christians in the room experienced. Cognition number one: the State of Kansas is being led by devout Christians. Cognition number two: it is a Christian duty to take care of the poor and vulnerable. Cognition number three: services for the poor and vulnerable are being reduced. If you hold all three of these views, you’re going to experience cognitive dissonance. If that dissonance is strong enough, you either change your views, or you seek out additional information, such as a memo on the national debt from a law firm in Louisiana that explains that the government cannot possibly afford to provide services to the poor and vulnerable.

The website of the Topeka Rescue Mission provides evidence that it tacitly accepts this position. “Over the years, funding across social service delivery systems has been cut dramatically or eliminated entirely in some areas. As a result, many who were recipients of these services are now fighting daily to survive and unable to remain in their homes… Sadly, we do not expect the epidemic to decline. Instead, we are preparing for a rigorous increase of individuals in need of support.”

Of course, we know that the memo on the debt was rubbish. For one thing, law firms don’t generally release statements concerning national economic policy and it is hard to imagine why anyone would take one that did seriously. The memo’s basic premise was flawed. A national budget is not like a household budget. I don’t know about your household, but in my home we cannot print our own money. Federal and state governments have broad powers to decide what their income will be in a given year, quite unlike most families. Debt operates in a very different way for nations than it does for individual citizens.

In an article entitled, “The Federal Budget is not like a Household Budget,” UMKC economics professor Randall Wray writes, “Whenever a demagogue wants to whip up hysteria about federal budget deficits, he or she invariably begins with an analogy to a household’s budget… On the surface that might appear sensible; dig deeper and it makes no sense at all. A sovereign government bears no obvious resemblance to a household… With one brief exception, the federal government has been in debt every year since 1776… In January 1835, for the first and only time in U.S. history, the public debt was retired, and a budget surplus was maintained for the next two years… [until] in 1837 the economy collapsed into a deep depression that drove the budget into deficit, and the federal government has been in debt ever since.”

Furthermore, Randall Wray points out the following, “Since 1776 there have been exactly seven periods of substantial budget surpluses and significant reduction of the debt… The United States has also experienced six periods of depression. With the exception of the Clinton surpluses, every significant reduction of the outstanding debt has been followed by a depression, and every depression has been preceded by significant debt reduction.” I am not pretending to be a trained economist. I am only saying that economic systems are complicated, much complicated than simple analogies to household budgets allow for.

The position that says that the amount of debt our nation carries requires significant cuts in spending – cuts to education, health care, social security, veteran’s benefits, pension plans for public employees, public health, mental health, the arts, job training, public broadcasting, Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, higher education, food stamps, public assistance, and so on – has been called the austerity position. It is a position of severity, harshness, strictness. The push towards austerity is especially prominent in Kansas, which has made cuts to social services, health, education, and the arts. These significant cuts resulted in a reported budget surplus of almost a half billion dollars, which calls into question the assertion that the government cannot afford to provide services. And, then there is the fact that in May the legislature approved and the governor signed an income tax cut for the state’s highest earners as well as small businesses, a tax cut that many believe will create future deficits leading to additional cuts to health and education.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman refers to those who propose enormous cuts to public services as the “Austerians.” Reading about them, I was struck by the way that the language of these economists leaves the realm of economics and enters the realm of theology. Writes Paul Krugman, “Finally, there’s the continuing urge to make the economic crisis a morality play, a tale in which a depression is the necessary consequence of prior sins and must not be alleviated. Deficit spending and low interest rates just seem wrong to many people… the trouble is that in the current situation, insisting on perpetuating suffering isn’t the grown up, mature thing to do. It’s both childish (judging policy on how it feels, not what it does) and destructive.”

L. Randall Wray argues just about the very same thing. “The hysteria about federal budget deficits and debt, has nothing to do with economics. There is no credible economic theory and no economic evidence that can lead one to conclude that the US needs to reduce its budget deficit during a time of widespread unemployment. It is a morality play, plain and simple.”

The worship of austerity is like the worship of those small and violent deities that demand human sacrifice.

In her essay “Austerity as Ideology” that I read from earlier, Marilynne Robinson, like Paul Krugman and like Randall Wray, argues that the Austerians do not promote their agenda based on any evidence, only on ideology. “At the very best,” Robinson writes, “there are two major problems with ideology. The first is that it does not represent or conform to or even address reality. It is a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe. And the second is that it inspires in its believers the notion that the fault here lies with miscreant fact, which should therefore be conformed to the requirements of theory by all means necessary.”

In truth, if I could fault any of these writers, it would be to fault them for being too generous in their treatment of the advocates of austerity. Are the proponents of austerity well-intentioned true believers, misled ideological purists? That’s too generous, too generous by far. To me they’re greedy bastards.

Robinson’s essay ends with a meditation about what is actually of worth. I’m going to conclude with an excerpt of her essay. “What are we doing here? We may never know… The universe is lifeless now and will be lifeless then, so negligible is our presence in it… We make wealth, and we destroy it. Our wealth is finally neither more nor less than human well-being… The great temptation of money is that it seems to give us tokens, markers, by which things and people can be truly said to succeed or fail… Eliminate the overwhelming cost of phantom wars and fools’ errands, and humankind might begin to balance its books. After all, its only debts are to itself.”

Or, to put it more simply, austerity is not only an ideology, but also a form of idolatry. It is a form of worshipping what is not worthy of worship. It is the worship of numbers in the ledger book, numbers that do not correlate in any meaningful way with human well-being. There are other ledgers we might imagine and value, ledgers of fairness, spreadsheets of human well-being, balance sheets of health, exchange-rates of love, bottom lines of justice.