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Barton Gingerich November 1, 2012
On October 25th and 26th, Christians from the right and the left convened at Cedarville University in Ohio to debate economic policy from a religious standpoint. Representatives from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, and the Discovery Institute touted mathematical figures, ethics, and biblical interpretation before an audience of community business leaders, economics faculty, and students. The conference, part of a “Critical Concerns for Evangelicals” series at the school, provided a forum for Christian leaders to debate issues of social and political importance. Although last year’s lectures on immigration were decidedly one-sided, the “American Dream Conference” offered a lively debate between two prominent economic viewpoints.
Barry James of James Investment Research laid the foundation for the event in his evening lecture. In the true form of an economist, he set out to delineate perceptions from reality. He illustrated how even the poor in the United States are amongst the wealthiest in the world and also showed that America still has a great deal of income mobility (the poor are not perpetually poor nor do the rich remain permanently rich). James then described how—to a certain extent—tax cuts actually increase government revenues in the long run by growing the economy as a whole. He also sermonized on the grave dangers of the nation’s burgeoning debt and the harm of high inflation. The introductory lesson touched on the problems of government regulations, safety nets, tax uncertainty, outsourced jobs, and employment. “A government doesn’t create wealth, but it can destroy it,” James concluded.
The next morning witnessed a face-off between Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action and Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth, Poverty, and Morality. Richards started from a thoughtful perspective. “We don’t want to distill finite concepts into a timeless category from Scriptures and what the Church has believed for 2,000 years,” he instructed, “I don’t think the Bible is to be treated as an economic textbook…but it does provide some principles.” He believed that Christians should “integrate the discernible truths and theoretical insights of economics with the normative principles of ethics and the relevant truths of theology.” Richards then asked several key moral questions regarding the national debt and deficit, such as “Is it just to borrow money that someone who is not party to the transaction must repay?”
The economist then taught the principle of subsidiarity or “concentric circles of responsibility,” in which one is responsible for those closest to him. He found the expenses of Social Security and Medicare to be especially troubling to the budget: people enter the programs at a younger age and live longer, thus pulling on benefits for a greater space of time. Although Richards did not want to abolish the social safety net, he did want his audience to understand that “Christians before Social Security and Medicare didn’t just send the elderly away to die.” He did, however, outline ways to address to problem: ignore it, print more money, abolish relevant programs, slow or reduce costs to relevant programs, and increase revenue through tax policy. He also offered several strategies to balance the budget. He thought the government could raise the age of welfare eligibility; bring competitive market forces to bear on price and delivery; cut and abolish some things; encourage pro-growth economic policies; and simplify taxes, deductions, and regulations. He declared, “We need to learn the habit of closing things that were once established.”
Dr. Ron Sider countered with his own assessment. He thought the debt and poverty problems were part of a “justice crisis.”
“We need two things,” he asserted, “a strong grasp of economic facts and a clear application of Biblical moral principles.”
Sider worried that the disparity of wealth is greater now than it has been since 1928. He noted that U.S. taxes are still quite low when compared to the rest of the world. He claimed that 94% of hunger assistance comes from the government; churches could not pick up the slack from the loss of these initiatives. “There is no basis in Biblical thought that says that the government cannot interfere to help the poor,” he exclaimed.
Sider claimed that he wanted to reject both communal collectivism and radical individualism. He observed, for example, that conservatives want the procedure to be fair while Marxists desire the results to be fair. Sider believed one could accomplish both, even in the City of Man. However, upon questions from the audience, he made sure to clarify that he did not desire a uniformity of economic outcomes. Instead, he contested that “God wants everybody to access resources to help provide for their own needs” and that the impoverished should have “equal access to the productive resources.”
To achieve the ends, Sider recommended several policies: more tax brackets, a full 50% tax on the top bracket, an estate tax, and the implementation of carbon credits. He further proposed a 50/50 budgetary process: half the needed funds would come from cuts to programs while the other half would be gathered from increased taxes. Meanwhile, Sider took time to demonize the “Republican majority in Congress” and to condemn Paul Ryan for his proposed retention of military spending, tax cuts “to the rich,” and slashes to welfare programs. During the question and answer period, he seemed to deny that were was an ethical hierarchy of values, with pro-life concerns near or at the top. He warned, “One issue politics is not simply biblical.”
The interchange between Sider and Richards was firm yet cordial. Richards favored free markets as the most prudential choice while Sider preferred more controlled economies. Students—many of whom were in the Cedarville business school—seemed more sympathetic to the capitalistic stance. Nevertheless, the “American Dream Conference” provided a helpful platform for dialogue.
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