Moral Backfilling

The political world stops a few days before Christmas. The House called it a year, having blocked as much legislation as possible and having passed next to nothing at all, and went home. The Senate, which had actually passed both a budget and comprehensive immigration reform legislation, both of which died in the House, called it quits the next week. There was no farm bill this time around, so the subsidies that support agribusiness, and keep milk from costing seven dollars a gallon, are in limbo, as is the food stamp program. There was some disagreement about the food stamp thing, not the subsidies for the giant corporations, along the lines of forcing the poor to get off their asses and find work, by taking away their food. Let them start their own multinational corporations, or something – but mainly it was an effort to embarrass Obama, the Food Stamp President. They’ll take away his food stamp program. That’ll show him, and Congress also failed to extend long-term unemployment benefits, so well over a million of those people receiving those benefits will lose them three days after Christmas, and two or three million a few months later, and two or three million a few months after that, and so on. The thinking, at least the Republican thinking, is the same – these people should get off their asses and find work, even if there isn’t much work for anyone out there, and even if you cannot receive these benefits unless you prove that you’re actually looking for work, and prove it each week. Congress has barely begun to discuss the possibility of raising the minimum wage, so those who work for McDonalds and Wal-Mart and such places, full-time, don’t have to turn to food stamps and other forms of public assistance to stay alive, because they’re paid so little. The Republicans are still trying to figure out their strategy there – the public overwhelmingly supports raising the minimum wage, and at least half of Republican voters do too, but they don’t write the checks that support congressional campaigns. It’s tricky. And the Federal Reserve will start the coming year without a chairman, or chairwoman in this case. The Senate was poised to confirm Janet Yellen to that post, with hardly a quibble at all, but they never got around to it. They’ll take care of that in January, maybe.

That’s a dismal record, but not the worst of it. The one thing everyone will probably remember from this Congress is that they shut down the government for sixteen days, costing the economy twenty-four billion dollars, causing immense pain for millions of government workers, who had to go without a paycheck for quite a bit, and decimating the tens of thousands of contractors who supply the federal government with everything from paper clips to janitorial services. That was an effort by the Republicans to force Obama to repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely, or to force congressional Democrats to agree to defund it, or to force Obama to delay the whole thing for a year, or two or three – the demands got hazier the more it became apparent that Obama and the Democrats would have none of that. In the end the Republicans got nothing for their efforts, other than scorn – they agreed to let the government reopen, and agreed to suspend the debt ceiling limits, so America wouldn’t default on all its debt and the world’s economy wouldn’t collapse, and the Affordable Care Act stood. It’s still a bit of a mess, but now it will stand or fall on its own merits – and maybe it will collapse. If so, the Republicans wasted everyone’s time, at great cost, even to them, with that shutdown. Oh well. Live and learn.

There was one good thing. Congress actually passed that compromise budget, the first actual budget the federal government has had since 2009, a two-year deal that puts an end to passing a continuing resolution every six months, to keep the place open, with spending at the same level, more or less, because no one can agree on anything. There will be no more of that for now. Now no one will be able to threaten to block any continuing resolution, which is a threat to shut down the federal government, entirely, unless they get their way. There’s a real budget. All is well. Things have changed in Washington. These folks will do something useful now, except they won’t – things don’t work that way. This deal shows there are ways in which the two parties can work together – but only when they don’t have to compromise. The two sides struck the best deal they could without compromising on anything either side really cared about, which is proof, ironically enough, that doing anything significant requires actual compromise. Congress is not finally working again. This deal shows that the two parties actually have accepted that Congress is broken. In January, they have to start dealing with what they do care about. It won’t be pretty.

That’s the political year in review, at least in domestic politics. There’s nothing more to say. Congress left town. President Obama left for the usual two weeks in Hawaii with the wife and kids – the place where he was born – really, honest – and actually part of the United States – really, honest. The political world stopped cold. It happens every year.

Each year this poses a problem for the big-gun columnists in the op-ed pages of the major newspapers. They’re paid to provide stunning insight into the stormy world of politics, as things play out in real time. They put things in perspective. They provide the context everyone has overlooked. They speak, provisionally, of winners and losers, and sometimes not provisionally at all. They do the political thinking for those who have better things to do – grocery shopping or getting to the kid’s soccer game – and they need raw material to work with. When all the major players have packed it in and left Washington, they find themselves left high and dry, and with a commitment to provide eight hundred words of insight twice a week. They are under contract to the newspaper to fill those column-inches, and they’re syndicated too – regional newspapers need to fill that empty space above the ads for snow-blowers and mattresses.

There’s only one thing to do – step back and take the long view – speak to BIG ISSUES. Luckily, Christmas is made for big issues, like peace on earth and goodwill to men, and the curious absence of both. Dickens plowed that ground long ago – Ebenezer Scrooge did have a change of heart after all – but there’s always more to say. This isn’t Victorian England. We have our own world now, with different concerns, so this year, Ross Douthat, one of the two conservative columnists at the New York Times, has decide to speak about what’s really going on with the big issues of the day, and has decided there are three spiritual worldviews in our America today, in conflict, and that’s what’s really going on with everything. It’s the hard-core biblical versus the soft-core spiritual versus the secular:

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene – the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight – but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone – including you.

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message – with the common person as the center of creation’s drama – remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

That’s the gist of it, from a devout Catholic. It’s a neat and clean set of distinctions, and probably true, and rather simpleminded, and perhaps useful. It’s also what might be called moral backfilling, when there are no specific political issues to fill the hole on the page. The trick is to extend these distinctions, to show how they inform our actions, and thus we get this:

The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.

The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm – the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism – tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

So there are two interesting religious questions that will probably face Americans for many Christmases to come. The first is whether biblical religion can regain some of the ground it has lost, or whether the spiritual worldview will continue to carry all before it.

Is that what we’re really fighting with each other about all the time? That might explain a great deal about that Duck Dynasty controversy – where that odd fellow with the big beard caused no end of trouble with his explanations of what God really hates, as applied to gays and blacks and the Japanese, among other things. That also may be a special case. The guy is a redneck duck hunter who lives in a swamp, on a reality show. He’s nobody. Everyone’s using what he said to prove something else, about free speech or how everyone hates Christianity and it’s just not fair, or something else. On the other hand, this inane multifaceted dispute about this nobody may prove Douthat’s point.

Even if so, at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum disputes the whole premise here:

Here’s what I’ve never understood about the kind of argument Douthat is making: it’s not as if secular ethics is a modern invention. Aristotle’s ethics were fundamentally secular, and were appropriated by the Church only long after his death. More recently, we have the example of plenty of modern, secular states in Europe and elsewhere, which appear to effortlessly practice an ethics every bit as praiseworthy as that of more religious states. On a personal level, there’s never been the slightest evidence that religious believers behave any better on average than the nonreligious.

None of this is new. Sure, in some abstract way, it’s not possible for me to justify my own sense of ethics all the way down to its ultimate core, but in real life that’s something I never even think about. In a practical, human sense, my sense of morality is every bit as strong as Douthat’s. He might attribute this to God and I might attribute it to the evolution of the human brain and human society, but either way there’s no inherent tension in the secular view simply because it lacks an ultimate metaphysical justification. It’s just not something that affects most of us even slightly. Douthat is imagining cracks that aren’t there.

That’s the problem:

Secular ethics isn’t some newfangled 20th-century experiment that’s falling apart at the seams and must inevitably be replaced with a deist revival or the return of Pol Pot. It’s millennia-old, and doing just fine.

Douthat should relax, but then there are moral issues that do need to be addressed, by secular ethics or biblical ethics or that feel-good in-between stuff. Another columnist, widely syndicated, Robert Reich, the economist, identifies one big moral issue we face:

The faith that anyone could move from rags to riches – with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone – was once at the core of the American Dream.

And equal opportunity was the heart of the American creed. Although imperfectly achieved, that ideal eventually propelled us to overcome legalized segregation by race, and to guarantee civil rights. It fueled efforts to improve all our schools and widen access to higher education. It pushed the nation to help the unemployed, raise the minimum wage, and provide pathways to good jobs. Much of this was financed by taxes on the most fortunate.

But for more than three decades we’ve been going backwards. It’s far more difficult today for a child from a poor family to become a middle-class or wealthy adult. Or even for a middle-class child to become wealthy.

The major reason is widening inequality – the longer the ladder, the harder the climb. America is now more unequal that it’s been for eighty or more years, with the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of all developed nations. Equal opportunity has become a pipe dream.

Rather than respond with policies to reverse the trend and get us back on the road to equal opportunity and widely-shared prosperity, we’ve spent much of the last three decades doing the opposite.

Taxes have been cut on the rich, public schools have deteriorated, higher education has become unaffordable for many, safety nets have been shredded, and the minimum wage has been allowed to drop 30 percent below where it was in 1968, adjusted for inflation.

Either that’s how it should be – some people win and some lose – or it’s a moral issue, which is Reich’s view:

The underlying issue is a moral one: What do we owe one another as members of the same society?

Conservatives answer that question by saying it’s a matter of personal choice – of charitable works, philanthropy, and individual acts of kindness joined in “a thousand points of light.”

But that leaves out what we could and should seek to accomplish together as a society. It neglects the organization of our economy, and its social consequences. It minimizes the potential role of democracy in determining the rules of the game, as well as the corruption of democracy by big money. It overlooks our strivings for social justice.

In short, it ducks the meaning of a decent society.

That’s why professional moralists weigh in on this issue:

Last month Pope Francis wondered aloud whether “trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness…” Rush Limbaugh accused the Pope of being a Marxist for merely raising the issue.

Yes, both the Pope and Rush Limbaugh are professional moralists, which may be the only things they have in common, but the economist Paul Krugman had also been writing about this back in October:

I still sometimes see pundits claiming that the Tea Party movement is basically driven by concerns about budget deficits. That’s delusional. Read the founding rant by Rick Santelli of CNBC: There’s nary a mention of deficits. Instead, it’s a tirade against the possibility that the government might help “losers” avoid foreclosure. Or read transcripts from Rush Limbaugh or other right-wing talk radio hosts. There’s not much about fiscal responsibility, but there’s a lot about how the government is rewarding the lazy and undeserving.

Republicans in leadership positions try to modulate their language a bit, but it’s a matter more of tone than substance. They’re still clearly passionate about making sure that the poor and unlucky get as little help as possible, that – as Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, put it – the safety net is becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” And Mr. Ryan’s budget proposals involve savage cuts in safety-net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

There was simply a different issue in October:

All of this hostility to the poor has culminated in the truly astonishing refusal of many states to participate in the Medicaid expansion. Bear in mind that the federal government would pay for this expansion, and that the money thus spent would benefit hospitals and the local economy as well as the direct recipients. But a majority of Republican-controlled state governments are, it turns out, willing to pay a large economic and fiscal price in order to ensure that aid doesn’t reach the poor.

So what’s the meaning of a decent society?

If the market is always right, then people who end up poor must deserve to be poor. I’d add that some leading Republicans are, in their minds, acting out adolescent libertarian fantasies. “It’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now,” declared Paul Ryan in 2009.

Ayn Rand was also a professional moralist:

So there is indeed a war on the poor, coinciding with and deepening the pain from a troubled economy. And that war is now the central, defining issue of American politics.

What ethics, secular or biblical, can address that?

This weekend, Thomas Egan updated Krugman:

As the year ends, this argument is playing out in two of the most mean-spirited actions left on the table by the least-productive Congress in modern history. The House, refuge of the shrunken-heart caucus, has passed a measure to eliminate food aid for four million Americans, starting next year. Many who would remain on the old food stamp program may have to pass a drug test to get their groceries. At the same time, Congress has let unemployment benefits expire for 1.3 million people, beginning just a few days after Christmas.

These actions have nothing to do with bringing federal spending into line, and everything to do with a view that poor people are morally inferior. Here’s a sample of this line of thought:

“The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me,” said Representative Steve Southerland, Republican from Florida, chief crusader for cutting assistance to the poor. “This is a defining moral issue of our time.”

It would be a “disservice” to further extend unemployment assistance to those who’ve been out of work for some time, said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. It encourages them to sit at home and do nothing.

“People who are perfectly capable of working are buying things like beer,” said Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, on those getting food assistance in his state.

Those quotes make these guys sound like moral monsters, so maybe when there are no politicians in town, doing what they do, it is time for moral backfilling:

When a million Irish died during the Great Famine of the 1850s, many in the English aristocracy said the peasants deserved to starve because their families were too big and indolent. The British baronet overseeing food relief felt that the famine was God’s judgment, and an excellent way to get rid of surplus population. His argument on relief was the same one used by Rand Paul.

“The only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring the operation to a close,” Sir Charles Trevelyan said about the relief plan at a time when thousands of Irish a day were dropping dead from hunger.

This week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried not to sound like a plutocrat out of Dickens when asked about the homeless girl, Dasani, at the center of Andrea Elliott’s extraordinary series in The New York Times – a Dickensian tale for the modern age.

“The kid was dealt a bad hand,” Bloomberg said. “I don’t know why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky, and some of us are not.”

Let’s see – there are secular ethics and biblical ethics and that feel-good in-between stuff, and then there is Mayor Bloomberg’s absence of ethics, where questions regarding the meaning of a decent society are meaningless questions. That would mean that the apparent war on the poor is morally neutral. It’s a matter of efficiency. Sigh sadly and cut out the dead wood, or like Congress, do nothing in particular. If life is as it is, and there’s not much anyone can do about it anyway, all political action is pointless, if not wasteful. That might explain the last year in domestic politics.

That also might explain why the meditative big-issue columns at the end of the year aren’t so silly after all. Sometimes it’s good, when given the chance, to step back and consider what’s really going on. It worked for Ebenezer Scrooge, and it’s that time of year again.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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