Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Send This Book to Congress: My GoodReads Review of Fixing the Moral Deficit

Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the BudgetFixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget by Ronald J. Sider
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Earlier this year I included in my Year of Overdue Books (books I should have read by now) the recently released Back to Work by President Bill Clinton. I justified its inclusion rather flimsily by deciding that getting the United States (and the world) back on its financial footing was an urgency and that those charged with the task were taking far too long. Whatever--I really just wanted to read the book. Anyway, I finished it and moved on, and a few weeks later pilfered a copy of Ron Sider's brand-new Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget. Published by my employer (full disclosure), it wasn't even officially a book yet; it arrived a few weeks early from the printer and hadn't yet been received into stock. I begged my colleague to let me have one of his review copies and took it with me on my cruise vacation.

I like reading books like this on a cruise ship. Given the obvious excess and self-indulgence that I and the other vacationers are enthusiastically indulging in, reading about budgets as moral documents seemed patently absurd, and I'm entertained by absurdity. (I read Andy Crouch's delightful Culture Making on a cruise as well, sitting just outside the ship's casino as I read about the human vocation of creating culture, not simply consuming or critiquing it.) But I also wanted to read up on the budget crisis and a solid, evangelical, ethical take on how the U.S. budget affects "the least of these" (to borrow language from Jesus) and how the budget might be reshaped to re-establish justice, promote the general welfare and re-form a more perfect union.

Ron Sider is the right person to write such a book. Author of the provocative Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, Sider has made economic justice his central vocation for decades. During that same time, the U.S. budget has become increasingly unwieldy, while politics have simultaneously become increasingly cutthroat. Our fiscal situation seems intractably disordered, quite honestly, and those charged with crafting a responsible budget seem too close and too compromised (by their electability, by their donors, by the heated rhetoric of their colleagues) to break through the morass and come up with something creative, just and sustainable. It takes people like Sider, like you and me, who are invested in the results of budget negotiations but who can keep enough critical distance to ask the right questions and commit to the best answers, and who have enough political clout (through the vote, through petitioning, through other collaborative ventures) to influence the decision-makers in a responsible direction.

Sider was one of the drafters of the 2011 Circle of Protection statement, which called for a budget that took debt seriously but also took the government's responsibility to its suffering citizens (and, it should be noted, to the least of these throughout the world). This book is in many ways an expansion of that statement, with specific suggestions and honest critique and a fair bit of attention to "generational justice," or an acknowledgment that spending beyond our means now is effectively the exploitation of the generations that come after us. I'm not sure I buy that; every investment is, effectively, a debt carried forward, and so some of the debt we incur today will actually benefit the people who come after us. That's not the only thing that I don't totally buy into in this book (figure 3.1 on the "different levels of Christian responsibility," for example, made me flinch a bit, as it seems to ignore Jesus' response to the question "Who is my neighbor?"); and it sometimes seems that the more specific Sider's recommendations get, the less likely they are to be implemented (the progressive surcharge on federal income tax to be applied to the debt strikes me as something that will never ever pass Congress ever). But quite honestly, no one tells it like it is quite like Ron Sider, and as moral documents go, this book is hard to dismiss. I'm going to send a copy to my congressional representative, my senators and my president, and I wouldn't mind it if you did the same. Fixing the moral deficit in the U.S. budget is overdue by decades, and the clock is running down for a responsible response. Sider may not have hit the bullseye with Fixing the Moral Deficit, but he's absolutely aiming in the right direction.

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