If we compare conservative and progressive beliefs about our economic problems, we find both sides seem to agree on two points:
· They agree it’s good for most people to be dependent upon the offerings of private enterprise to meet their daily needs, in ways that generate continuous profits for the owners of private enterprise.
· They agree that lately, too many citizens are no longer dependent in profitable ways on private enterprise because they’ve fallen into an unprofitable state of helplessness. They further agree that, for our economy to thrive, we must encourage the helpless back into profitable dependency, which means most robust adults must have jobs.
What both sides seem not to agree upon are the answers to these questions:
· Why have so many become helpless, even though they still need to buy things from private enterprise to survive?
· What’s the best way to move the helpless back into the workforce, so they can earn enough to buy what they need without government support?
Note that the way you answer the first question will determine the approach you support for resolving the second question.
Conservatives propose that too many are choosing to behave in unprofitably helpless ways because the government has pampered them, encouraging them to rely on handouts instead of working. They believe eliminating government support for these lazy, irresponsible folks will force people to take responsibility for meeting their own needs. Grover Norquist said, “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” That desire reflects an urge to starve the beast they believe enables slothfulness.
While it seems harsh, conservatives justify their strategy by claiming that raising taxes discourages hard work. They fear that taxing workers too heavily in order to enable the helpless remain helpless only drives more people to quit work and go on the government dole. They fear too much of that would collapse our entire economy.
Alternatively, progressives blame businesses and the aggressive strategies they’ve employed to increase their profits at the expense of the working poor. Offshoring, wage and benefit cuts, and replacing workers with machines and computers have negatively impacted jobs. Progressives believe that’s driving the rise in poverty, which in turn undermines social services. They believe the poor have almost no chance to lift themselves out of helplessness and meet their needs without government support. As Bill Clinton once said, “America just works better when more people have a chance to live their dreams.”
Progressives believe the answer is to tax profitable businesses at higher rates, eliminate subsidies and raise taxes on the wealthy. They want to redistribute that money to provide jobs and services to assist the helpless in becoming more self-reliant. While progressives are often accused of having “bleeding hearts” and disrespecting the rights of business owners and entrepreneurs, they justify their strategy by claiming that, in a civil society, those who’ve been gifted much bear the burden of supporting the less fortunate.
What’s fascinating about that this debate, which has been waging for decades, is that neither strategy works. Perhaps that’s because we’re so busy arguing over our points of disagreement that we’ve not bothered to examine our points of agreement, to determine whether they’re guiding us to ask the proper questions.
What if they’re not?
It’s an impasse similar to to our historic quarrel over slavery. Conservatives back then believed it was appropriate for masters to treat runaway slaves harshly, beating or lynching them to create reminders for others in case they too were considering escape. Meanwhile, progressives argued for new laws to force slave owners to treat slaves more humanely, believing slaves would then willingly serve their masters out of gratitude for their kindness.
Ironically, the argument wasn’t resolved until both sides admitted (after a long and bloody war) that how to treat slaves was the wrong question. The correct question all along had been to ask whether slavery itself was spiritually aligned with who we are as a species. Was it life-affirming behavior on our part?
The same, I suspect, holds true for our economy. If we stop quarrelling long enough over whether we should balance the budget or spend more money to fix our current system, the question that may at last surface is this: Is the way we’re operating spiritually aligned with who we are as a species? Is it life-affirming?
If the answer is no – and that seems to be the true answer – then we do next must, by definition, not support its continuation, but support our own shift to more life-affirming behavior.