In this election year, our country is facing choices about leaders and approaches to governing that will have a profound effect on future policies. In an era of increasingly partisan politics, routine measures like developing the annual federal budget have become highly politicized. However, governmental budgets are also moral documents that reflect the values, priorities, ethics, and sense of justice of those who formulate them. A close look at the 2016 proposed budget indicates that its tone, the interests it privileges, and the needs it devalues or ignores are a direct reflection of the mindset of individual responsibility without social responsibility that frames the political morality of its primary architect: Paul Ryan. Although Ryan claims that the budget offers a “better way” to address widespread poverty and near poverty in the United States, this approach to policymaking is anything but a better way. In actuality, it is an egregious transgression of the foundational ethical principle of every major religion: loving our neighbors and caring for their needs as if they are our own.
This should come as no surprise. Throughout most of his political career, Ryan credited the famed right-wing novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand as his major political influence and a primary shaper of his “value systems”— until his run for the vice-presidency, when political optics made it imprudent to praise Rand. As a bestselling author and philosopher, Rand came to prominence by promoting a philosophy in her novels that upholds selfishness as a virtue and condemns altruistic concern for others as a “basic evil.” Rand valorized "producers" of wealth (“makers”) and demonized recipients of government assistance (“takers”), terms that expressed her contempt for social welfare programs and those who need them. Rand’s philosophy has been used to fuel conservative attacks on social safety net programs for half a century. Speaker Ryan’s gushing admiration for Rand underscores the degree to which her political morality has shaped his approach to poverty and inequality: “Ayn Rand did … a fantastic job, better than anyone else … explaining the morality of capitalism.”
Despite Ryan’s eventual disavowal of Rand, his current budget proposal, his recently released so-called anti-poverty plan, and the way Ryan regularly frames the issue of poverty when speaking to policy makers, the media, and voters, reflects his continued embrace of Rand’s “makers and takers” ideology and her abhorrence of social welfare programs. Indeed, Ryan’s budget calls for the most severe budget cuts in social welfare funding in modern history. The budget’s obvious prioritizing of the interests of the wealthy reveals it to be the latest rendition of the conservative supply-side, or “trickle-down,” economic ideology first employed as a cornerstone of American economic policy by Ronald Reagan, under whose administration income inequality skyrocketed.
To be clear, the trickle-down approach to economic policy is based upon the assumption – yet unproven – that the existence of an extremely wealthy class in America is crucial to the nation’s social and economic health. Maintaining and increasing the wealth of the very rich requires policies specifically crafted for that purpose. Thus, by definition, a primary purpose of budgets and policies based upon trickle-down ideology, like the Ryan budget proposal, is to serve the financial interests of the wealthiest Americans above all others, while claiming those policies to be in the best interests of the rest of us.
Yet the foundational premise of trickle-down has long been derided and refuted. The term is widely attributed to the tongue-in-cheek assessment by the Depression-era humorist, Will Rogers, of why Herbert Hoover and his political cohorts lost the 1932 presidential election: “They didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in hopes that it would trickle down to the needy.” The economist John Kenneth Galbraith drolly summarized trickle-down economics as, “what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”
In fact, the claims of trickle-down ideology are convincingly refuted by many reputable economic studies, such as the multi-national 2012 Tax Justice Network study, which concludes that rather than trickling down to the benefit of poorer people, increased wealth for the very wealthy is often not spent but accumulated, quite often in off-shore tax havens, from which nothing trickles down. A 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund pointedly reached a similar conclusion.In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis offers from his purview an unsparing condemnation of the convoluted ethical foundation and moral bankruptcy of trickle-down economics: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories …. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
In response to widespread criticism of his budget, in a televised interview Ryan attempted to portray himself as sincerely concerned about the plight of poor Americans by implying that it was his Catholic faith, not Ayn Rand or cynical political calculation, that guided his budgetary choices. “[T]he [Bible’s] preferential option for the poor,” he testified, “… is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teachings.” Yet, his budget’s focus on further enriching the already wealthy directly contradicts the very foundational biblical ethics that many conservatives like Ryan claim to hold dear. Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudiumcondemnation of trickle-down proponents and practitioners as “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor... as though all this were someone else’s responsibility” is an apt description of the Ryan budget, for the budget reflects nothing like compassion and effectively ignores the many passages in the Bible that enjoin responsibility upon those in positions of governance and power to provide care for the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable among us, such as two passages in the book of Psalms: “Give the king your justice, O God… May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice…. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy...” (Psalm 72:1-2, 4). And Psalm 82: "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy..." (Psalm 82:3-4).
The unbiblical trickle-down ideology of Ryan’s budget proposal is also evinced by the areas in which it seeks to most reduce spending. Its largest reductions are in the programs in which the rich have little interest: the social-welfare and safety net programs that millions of economically disadvantaged, socially vulnerable, and health-challenged Americans depend upon. At the same time, it seeks to reduce by 50 percent the top income tax rate, a measure that obviously only benefits the richest Americans. It seeks to cut the corporate tax rate by fully a third, while social welfare programs are to be cut by an incredible $3.5 trillion over ten years, which means that by 2026 some 40 percent of all federal funds for social welfare programs will disappear. Although programs serving low-income Americans constitute 28 percent of federal domestic spending, Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the programs that serve those least able to carry the additional financial burden would bear some 60 percent of the budget cuts. These measures have been framed by Ryan and other conservative leaders as a way to help low-income Americans climb the economic ladder, but that narrative conceals the devastating effects of their policies.
When viewed in its totality, Speaker Ryan’s budget proposal suggests disregard, if not disdain, for the needs of poor Americans. If adopted, it would greatly worsen the plight of America’s poor and needy, and by further widening the already considerable wealth and income gaps in America, it can only increase the festering sense of economic injustice gripping much of this nation.
Yet, however anathema this budget is to the interests of most Americans, there is still reason to be heartened. Most reputable surveys indicate that the majority of Americans reject the trickle-down privileging of the interests of the most well-to-do over the needs of average Americans and the country’s most vulnerable populations. According to a Pew Research Center study, 65 percent of Americans say the economic system in this country “unfairly favors powerful interests.” A YouGov study finds that 45 percent of surveyed Americans disagree with the trickle-down claim that lower taxes on the wealthy will eventually benefit everyone. The Opportunity Agenda’s national survey found that policies for reducing poverty garner wide support, with 75 percent of Americans indicating that unequal treatment of poor people is a real problem. The same survey showed that a majority of Americans support the safety net programs that Speaker Ryan has placed on the chopping block: 77 percent favor increasing funding or keeping current spending levels for food stamps and 65 percent prioritize avoiding cutbacks to Social Security.
This stark impasse between the agenda of conservative politicians and the beliefs of the majority of Americans presents a significant opportunity to reassert in the public square progressive values that will countervail the conservative agenda that the Ryan budget represents, such as compassion, justice, shared social fate, and community responsibility. Because so many Americans share our dissatisfaction with the gross economic inequality in our nation, we who advocate for social and economic justice should build upon that disaffection to advance messages and strategies that forcefully challenge budgets, policies and governmental actions and pronouncements that violate the values that we share.
Over the next few months, Americans will grapple with decisions that will dictate the values our nation will prioritize and embrace for some time to come. The Opportunity Agenda has developed useful resources to shift the narrative of “maker and taker” to a narrative that values in equal measure both attending to the needs of the poor and providing greater economic opportunity for everyone. The increasing coarseness of our political discourse and the increasingly callous measures that today pass for “anti-poverty” policies demand that we ramp up our struggle for lasting economic justice, life-affirming social change and a political culture that acknowledges the dignity and worth of us all.
Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at The Opportunity Agenda and the author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (Doubleday, 2006)