It is said that one way to measure one’s ethical priorities is through their checkbook. Now that we may often pay our bills on line, the metaphor may no longer apply. But the point is that our personal economy and that of our various agencies and government is a major indicator of our ethics. How generous are we toward others? How do our “checkbooks” indicate how well we challenge materialism and support sustainability? How careful are we to responsibly monitor our income and expenses and be accountable for our errors? (As soon as I wrote this I am reminded that when we try to have a conversation about the ethics of economics, we are likely to be reminded “Now you’re meddling.’”) Our income and wealth are supposed to be private affairs, and for the most part, they should be, of course. But our economics are more that just our personal choices; they are choices about how we also responsibly care about our family, friends, community and beyond, as well.
When we responsibly manage our financial affairs, and we are able to match our access to income with our expenses, we probably do not need any form of oversight. But when we can’t manage our way through personal economic crisis like a medical emergency or the loss of a job or inadequate income to meet our essential needs, where can we turn for help? I think we could all agree that at times of crisis we need non-judgemental social support. But when we have been irresponsible and wasteful or caught in an addiction, does society still owe support, even though it is more difficult ethically to administer?
One of the central ethical dilemmas of my social work career has been how to deal with the tension between helping the “deserving poor” and also providing aid to those whose lives seem profligate and irresponsible. Some years ago I ran a housing rehab program that featured a low-interest loan program. I was essentially a banker responsible for overseeing loan applications and whether their debt ratio of income and expenses met a particular criteria. I was always pleased when we could qualify someone and the loan was approved, but it was especially difficult when a client did not qualify. The experience could challenge my efforts to help. I had to tell one client that he would need to reduce his expenses by some number. He replied that would be easy because he said he drank at least that much each week. I was not impressed!
This tension becomes political, of course, when a more conservative position asks how much can we care for the seemingly endless needs of the poor in contrast to the more liberal position to try to humanely care for all in need regardless of whether they are deserving or not. Political policy between these poles swings back and forth trying to find a negotiable medium. I have always been committed to the compassionate side of the spectrum, but I also, like the conservatives, find it difficult to simply accept situations where people just assume they deserve our support without requiring some level of accountability and responsibility.
I had a similar skeptical response this week to the discussions about the crisis related to our nation’s debt ceiling which I assume is some largely arbitrary number the federal government has agreed is important but negotiable or ignore-able. When the numbers are in the trillions I lose any meaningful perspective, but what I do understand is that just as I expected my loan clients to be conscientiously responsible for their finances or negotiate, if possible, how they might manage with outside help. The poor - and our state government that requires a balanced budget - are simply not able to arbitrarily lift their own personal “debt ceiling” and just call for whatever amount of financial support they deem necessary like seems to be true of the federal government.
If the federal government were my client and asking for a loan, I would put them through a similar loan application process as I did for my poor clients. I would assume the right to question what I might consider profligate spending, such as the Pentagon budget. I look forward to a day when the public finds a more effective way to begin “meddling” in the federal budget, perhaps starting by cutting the bloated Pentagon budget, for example. We could so ably support the true needs of our people with adequate wages, health care, and education, for example. We all know a more ethical, responsible federal budget is possible. But our ability to hold the government accountable for that level of reform is discouragingly elusive at present.
I am encouraged, however, that an effort to respect and honor that responsibility is at least a sticky note attached to the nation’s checkbook as a “debt ceiling.” Let’s see how it goes this week.