Monday, September 10, 2012

Energion Poltical Roundtable -- Question 4: The Economy

What are the most critical elements of an economic plan for the United States, and how should they be balanced? Which candidate has a plan closest to what you prefer?

            Even as I’m not a tax expert, I’m not an economist.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have informed opinions, it’s just that I’m not an expert.  As a pastor and as a theologian, I do look at these questions from the perspective of God’s justice and God’s overriding concern for the least among us.  The question before us concerns what I see as being the most critical components of an American economic plan. 

            I think we start with a couple of assumptions.  First, we live in a global economy, so, for instance, the cost of energy, is influenced not only what we do here, but demand across the globe.  Many American companies have a presence in many other places in the world, and so their bottom line is influenced by a number of factors.  Second, much manufacturing is now  performed by robots rather than people, thus some of the well-paying jobs of yesteryear are gone.  Third, we’ve been living off deficit spending for a very long time, with both parties complicit.  In fact, many studies suggest that Republican administrations and Congresses have been more profligate in their spending than Democrats.  Of course, the goodies that each party “purchases” on credit differ.

            Are we in difficult economic circumstances?  Well, yes and no.  The economy is growing slowly and unemployment is rather high.  We have too many homes in foreclosure and families underwater with their mortgages.  We have a growing national debt that needs to be addressed, along with an aging population that will tax both Social Security and Medicare.  But, we're in better shape now than four years ago when the economy was in free-fall. As we ponder solutions, we need to ask – on whose backs will the budget be balanced?  Who will pay the greatest cost?

            I’m not an expert but it seems as if people like Paul Krugman who argue that the economy doesn’t need austerity measures but an infusion of capital are on the right track.  There a number of areas where government – at all levels – can aid the economy by focusing attention on infrastructure, education, research, and job training (the kinds of programs the President has been proposing).  We need the kind of forward looking thinking that will prepare us for the world that will be, not the world that was.  For instance, we could focus on replacing and enhancing an aging power grid.  We can invest in new energies.  Many of our roads and bridges are more than forty years old and are in need of replacement.  Our rail system hasn’t been updated in decades, and high speed rail would be boon for business and tourism.  And we need to invest in education that will prepare us for the future – not only math and science, but social studies. If we don’t understand our world, we won’t know how to engage it. 

            As for the debt, well, as I said, Republican have been even more profligate than Democrats of late.  They’ve gotten on an austerity bandwagon, but I’m not sure how we can cut taxes, raise defense, and keep Social Security and Medicare as is, without either raising the debt further or cutting drastically the kinds of programs that give the nation’s poorest a safety net.   Remember that the Bush Administration cut taxes even as it engaged in two costly foreign wars.  The current nominees talk about reductions in government, but don’t specify what they’d cut – beyond the usual suspects (NPR, Amtrak, and the cultural endowments).  Since these are a drop in the bucket of expenditures, surely further cuts must come from Medicaid, Food Stamps, and VA programs.  And if you think eliminating “Obamacare” (since the Democratic convention embraced the term, so will I) will help, the Congressional Budget Office argues otherwise.   

The big ticket items are Defense, Medicare, and Social Security.  Although Payroll taxes fund the latter two, when and where they fall short of income, they will be and are sustained by the general budget.  Thus, to truly resolve the problem of debt, we need more revenue.  Remember Americans don’t just tighten their belts, they find ways of increasing revenue (2nd jobs, etc.).  The question is – where will the revenue come from?  Must suggestion—go first to those most able to pay more, the wealthy.  The idea that they are job creators is nonsense.  In a consumer based economy, it’s the middle class that creates jobs, with purchasing power.  Henry Ford understood this, which is why he paid a good wage to his workers.  
Now, where can make cuts?  I’d start with a bloated military budget.  Do we really need all the gadgets the military has?  Do we really need to be so extended militarily?  We have the largest military in the world, by far.  President Dwight Eisenhower, himself one of the nation’s greatest military minds, believed in a strong defense, but he also warned against the undue influence of the “military-industrial complex.”  He warned against getting hooked on military spending and allowing the military and its suppliers to have too much influence on America’s political life.  We can have a conversation about how much military is enough, but surely we have more than enough for the moment.

Wouldn’t we be better off directing the focus of our research and design onto areas that actually enhance life?  You know, creating alternative forms of energy and making life more energy efficient?  And if we want a strong military, then we should pay for it without compromising our ability to help the poor and the marginalized. 

As for who has the better plan, neither major party is perfect, but I believe that President Obama and the Democratic Party are the most in sync with my own priorities.  His plans are more specific and more balanced.  The Romney-Ryan ticket is vague about its plans and where they’re specific, they don’t jive with my priorities.   So, I’m going with the current Presidential team.

You can offer your thoughts and questions for the roundtable sponsored by Energion Publicatons at   Check out the thoughts of the other participants as well – Allan BevereElgin Hushbeck, Joel Watts, and Arthur Sido

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