By Frank Wessling
If the United States were a simple household, a family of father, mother, three or four children and a pet dog, any reasonable observer of its behavior would have to say that this family desperately needs help. It’s the model of dysfunction.
We have just had a national election which seemed to say that the family doesn’t like the people it knows. We’re feeling unsatisfied, restless. We throw off the security blanket we’ve been resting under. We want fresh air.
On second thought, it’s scary without the blanket. Can’t we have both all the cake we want and a slender, healthy shape?
According to a new nationwide poll, our national family is even more mixed up than the clashing metaphors above. The Wall Street Journal/NBC survey found a mixed mess of attitudes in us. We say we should live within our means, pay our bills, etc. But when the choices are presented in hard, practical terms, we run off in all directions — mostly back to that blanket where we hide from reality.
The major reason we voted for particular candidates in the elections this month was a promise/hope that they would cut spending, say 66 percent of us. At the same time, 70 percent of us fear cuts in Social Security, Medicare and national defense, which is where most of the spending is.
On the question of taxes, 59 percent of us don’t like the idea of either raising taxes or changing the tax code to, for example, eliminate the deduction for home mortgages.
Raise the retirement age for receiving Social Security? We’re not comfortable with that idea, say 57 percent of us.
Most interesting, the new poll found that 36 percent of us are uncomfortable about any major practical change in our habits: not less “security,” not reform of the tax system, not working longer. And nearly half (46 percent) of this group describe itself as conservatives.
All of this suggests that federal spending is likely to continue running more than a trillion dollars ahead of income. All of the shouting over taxes and spending is just noise from the game room, not serious self-examination.
For that, we would do better to shut off the office-seekers and various economic theorists and look at what the Church says about living together in society. Seriously, if our national problem is basically a need for change, reform, transformation, why not look to the institution with a history and experience in that field.
What the Church offers are principles derived from the Gospel, principles to stand on while considering those questions about taxes and spending. It doesn’t say what to do about gas taxes or Medicare spending but provides a spirit within which to communicate and decide. It says that people who have more are expected to do more. It says that the health of the whole people requires care for the weakest and most vulnerable members. It says that everything we have, all of our resources, are first gifts to be shared and only secondarily property or achievements of our own.
With such a platform we will better be able to talk about mutual needs and responsibilities. We will be starting from a desire for the common good, not an advantage for myself alone, as if our life together is a profit-taking exercise. We will always begin our activities, political and otherwise, by giving thanks, the first step in a healthy examination of reality.
As a national family we urgently need to pause for a look around at all that we have and give thanks. For some of us, it is harder to find reasons for gratitude, but life itself and family or caregivers are a beginning. For the rest, for most of us, we live in an embarrassment of riches compared to the majority of our fellow humans.
This is a good time to begin acting as if we can see that, and move forward with a better sense of sharing and less worry about getting and keeping.