The United States—Living Outside its Limits
The United States—Living Outside its Limits

The United States—Living Outside its Limits

June 1 st 1996

The decade of the 1990s has seen several promises of major change in the "politics as usual" situation in American political life. In 1992, Bill Clinton appealed to the electorate as a new Democrat, promising to reform the health system, "end welfare as we know it," balance the budget, and cut taxes for the middle class. That same year, Ross Perot took on the status quo with his United We Stand movement, promising reform throughout government with an emphasis on balancing the federal budget. In 1994, Republicans rode their Contract with America to control of both houses of Congress, promising a wholesale reduction in the size of government, a balanced federal budget within seven years, term limits for elected officials, as well as an entire new way of doing business in Washington.

As of 1996, all of these movements for change have failed, and those promises that government policy would be made within fiscally responsible limits remain unfulfilled. As the United States approaches elections in November 1996, political life now seems adrift, with widespread cynicism among voters and a host of politicians who drift with both the political winds and the most recent poll results.

Little action

Conventional wisdom concerning the political climate in the United States suggests that presidential elections hinge on the economic situation at the time of the elections. If the economy is growing steadily, and inflation and unemployment are under control, the incumbent is at a great advantage. This year the conventional wisdom seems to be holding true to this point, with President Clinton maintaining a sizable lead over Senator Robert Dole in the national polls. Democrats and Republicans are currently exchanging barbs over issues of character and making promises of new programs and tax cuts in an attempt to "buy" voter loyalty. There are a number of important policy issues that Washington must face, but little action seems likely until after the election.

The United States as yet has no universal guaranteed medical care for its citizens, although the overwhelming majority of the populace do have insurance coverage or are covered by Medicaid (health benefits for poor Americans) and Medicare (senior citizen health care). Health care costs are exploding as part of the federal budget.

President Clinton's unsuccessful foray into health care reform showed that Americans were quite suspicious of increasing federal government intrusion into the economy. Republican attempts to facilitate health care based on a more free market approach (including medical savings accounts) face veto threats from Clinton, so reform currently is blocked. This issue is of such importance that it is likely a compromise will be made soon after the election, yielding reforms that are more moderate and also are based on a more decentralized approach.

The issue of abortion has continued to remain in the political spotlight, although American policy has changed very little in recent years. The Democratic party has consistently promoted a pro-choice (or abortion rights) platform, even to the extent of forbidding pro-life Democrats from speaking at its convention in 1992. As more Republicans become pro-choice, their party has been forced to dance around the issue. The leaders of the Republican party no longer desire to have it seen as solely a pro-life party; the issue of justice for the unborn has been pushed back by political expediency.

While maintaining his opposition to abortion, Senator Dole states that abortion is a moral issue and therefore his party must be tolerant to those who express different views. He aims to make economic concerns and the push for less government the centerpiece of his election campaign. Based on this stand and that of President Clinton, there is little likelihood of further protection of the rights of unborn children in the next four years.

Educating America

Educational reform is certain to be one of the major issues in the United States into the 21st century and beyond, with change on the horizon for both the college and elementary/secondary levels. The 1980s and 1990s have seen a decrease in federally-funded financial aid as well as an explosion in the cost of attending college. At the same time, more students than ever attend college in the United States.

These seemingly incongruous trends can be explained by the fact that the monetary returns to college education are higher than ever. Those workers who have a college education are the only ones whose economic fortunes have improved in the last twenty years. For those individuals with less than a college education, real wages have declined.

As markets become more international and competition is more intense, workers with less education are at a competitive disadvantage. This has spurred calls for reform within higher education itself and for increased funding of college education. Changes in higher education that make colleges more responsive to the needs of business (by emphasizing training in job skills) may, however, take American education in the wrong direction if they reduce the role education plays in developing stewardly citizens with a commitment to moral leadership.

Public education on the elementary and secondary level has been under attack from many sides. Traditionally, the American public school system has been a monopoly, with tax money accruing to only one school system within a district. Those who wish to educate their children from a Christian perspective must pay for a private school in addition to tax monies paid to support the public school. By law, the public school system may not present a Christian worldview as part of the educational program. In fact, almost all references to Christianity have been expunged from public schools (in some schools, even to the extent of substituting winter festival for Christmas and harvest festival for Thanksgiving). At the same time, many notions often described as "politically correct" (for example, acceptance of homosexuality as a viable lifestyle choice) have been integrated into the curriculum.

Concurrent with these happenings has been a rise in spending per student on public education, lower test scores, and an increase in school violence. As a result, there is growing experimentation in education, with the development of more charter and "magnet" schools to provide alternative education. There has also been movement for more "school choice" for parents based on a voucher system; this is often seen as an effective way to empower poor young people whose education is often underfunded and ineffective. Although there are a number of "church/state" issues that are major obstacles, there is some hope that parents in the future will have more choice about how to educate their children.

Overhauling welfare

One hopeful sign within American political life is the movement towards reform in the welfare system. One of the few issues on which Americans have a political consensus is that the current welfare system needs to be overhauled. However, this problem is wrapped up with the issue of the breakdown of the family and soaring unwed motherhood. It has been difficult for policymakers to help support those who are poor without also generating perverse incentives which can lead to further dependence on the government. The past five years have seen a number of innovative movements on the state level to better help those who are poverty stricken, including more emphasis on work requirements, job training, and the provision of child care as well as time limits on how long one can receive welfare benefits from the state. At the same time, there is an increased willingness to involve more local nongovernmental institutions in the process of providing a safety net for those who become poor. Despite these innovations, the number of poor Americans has actually increased, even though the United States has experienced a time of steady economic growth.

The push of American culture to buy and the idea that life is not complete without the consumption of products exacerbates the plight of the poor. The poor in monetary terms have other things which could bring great contentment (families, churches, friends, free goods such as libraries, other forms of recreation) but their relative lack of material goods leaves them extremely dissatisfied. Those who have the products are not much happier, as these goods never fulfill their promise, and they always can find someone who has more. Unfortunately , Christians themselves are often leaders in the worship of material goods. Instead, Christians need to exercise their prophetic voices and express that the good life is not to be found in material things, but in service to others and God.

Mortgaging the future

While discussions concerning health care, education, and welfare proceed, the United States continues to mortgage the future for the sake of current consumption. The national debt has recently gone over five trillion dollars, and the federal budget has not been balanced in over 25 years. The Medicare and Social Security systems face bankruptcy in the future without major overhauls. The current and future commitments of the U.S. government in terms of health care, old age pensions, and other entitlements imply staggering (and unsustainable) tax rates for members of future generations. Programs designed to deal with a population where there were a small number of senior citizens compared to younger workers (one per 16 as of 1950) face a situation in the near future (by 2030, with most baby boomers in retirement) where each retiree will be supported by only two workers. While there can be honest disagreement concerning the proper extent of the government's role in the economy in its task to promote justice, there is no excuse for passing on huge debts to the next generation. Although the numbers are inexorable and the day of reckoning inevitable, Americans continue to choose to ignore the problem, and every day add to the burden being passed on to their children.

The emphasis on "more is better" within the United States reduces the good life to the accumulation of products; economic policy within government becomes intent on maximizing quantities of private goods and as a result mortgages the future of our country. People and politicians in the United States continue to attempt to live beyond the limits of both God's norms and His creation.

At the root of the situation in the U.S. is an increasing selfishness where policies are evaluated only in terms of the benefit to oneself. Needs of the poor, justice for workers, and care for the environment are often left for the government to handle, although they are unable to do it alone. Other institutions (churches, businesses, schools, and community organizations) as well as individuals need to be encouraged and aided to take up their responsibilities.

The clause in the United States Constitution, however, requiring the separation of church and state, has increasingly been interpreted as mandating the removal of all religion from public areas in American life. In addition, for the most part, lives of Christian service and ideas of Christian ethics are not covered by the major media. These are immense barriers that Christians in the United States must overcome as they attempt to promote stewardship and justice throughout our economic and political life.

Todd Steen
Todd Steen

Todd P. Steen is the Granger Professor of Economics at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he has worked since 1988. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he studied under President Obama's chief economic adviser Larry Summers. His favorite economists are Summers, Greg Mankiw, and Bob Goudzwaard.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?