Giving Congress a blank check is like throwing red meat to sharks. Giving Congress a blank check and screaming Fire!, as President Obama has been doing, guarantees the worst sort of knee-jerk Congressional response: just throw money at everything and hope that something works.
The "change we need" turns out, unsurprisingly, to be more Washington gluttony at the expense of future generations of taxpayers.
The 1980's recession was much worse than this, and I'm sure the fear in the White House is that our current recession could quickly reach those same terrible levels, where unemployment reached 10.8%. Reagan was blamed then; Obama would be blamed now.
Both recessions had some similar triggers. In the 1980's, beginning in the Carter administration, Congress deregulated banks and savings and loans while increasing the FDIC insurance guarantees to $100,000 per account. With the government standing ready to protect investors from the consequences of risky decisions, banks felt free to finance dubious (but potentially more profitable) real estate ventures. When those ventures failed, a great many banks and S&Ls failed.
This practice of protecting risky investments from the consequences of that risk is known as moral hazard, a surprisingly rich economic term. Risk always serves as a disincentive to bad behavior. I would love to earn double-digit returns on my investments, but if there is a good chance that my money will disappear, I'll settle instead for a CD at my local bank.
But if the government promises to pay me back if my investment goes south, I'll gladly write a check to the Honorable Kimbu Alantra, Esq. in Nigeria, on the slim chance that there really might be a truckload of money in an abandoned bank account.
Moral hazard has reappeared in this current crisis when Congress once again tinkered with the banking industry, this time strong-arming banks into making housing loans to borrowers with a high potential for defaulting on those loans. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, government lending institutions, led the charge, throwing billions into the housing market in an effort to get all Americans into their own homes.
Surprisingly, not all of those borrowers could actually afford the payments, and we now have Lehman Brothers in bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch sold, AIG propped up with billions in taxpayer funds, and the world economy sliding into recession.
This week, Congress is itself engaging in a different sort of moral hazard it has the power to waste other people's money with impunity. There is no down side for Congress because it will not have to pay the bill. You will. I will. Our children will. Senators and Congressmen have fully-funded pension plans. They will never experience the pain of unemployment, nor the weight of the huge debt they are putting on the shoulders of future taxpayers.
Rather than rushing to drown us in more debt, Congress would have done well to slow down and debate the causes of this recession, as well as actions that might actually move the American economy back into production. Instead, Democrats have dragged out the same bloated Christmas lists that they trot out every budget year, only this time, they have a green light from the White House to spend, spend, spend.
Though this historic bill is being called a "stimulus package," it has only managed to stimulate Washington's gluttony.
Genuinely new ideas have apparently not been considered. For instance, the American auto industry is suffering, perhaps dying. Congress could have declared Michigan a tax-free investment zone for all manufacturing related to transportation, both existing and new. This would not only create incentives for green technology investment, but would give the existing American automobile industry the competitive advantage that it needs to rebuild itself.
Similarly, Congress could have created such enterprise zones in several other large US cities to attract new manufacturing jobs here, jobs that have been fleeing to China.
Instead, Congress is putting your money into computerizing your health records. Didn't realize there was a health care computer crisis? Neither did I.
Congress could have temporarily halved employee/employer contributions to Social Security, which would have given every working American an instant 6.2% raise. With US median household income at about $50,000, that would mean an extra $3,100 in our pockets.
Instead, they have increased the money available for college Pell grants at a time when university endowment funds are at historic highs.
The US lags behind Japan and Europe in broadband Internet access and data transfer speeds. Since so much of our new economy depends on electronic commerce and rapid, secure access to data, one might think Congress would want to pour money into much-needed broadband infrastructure upgrades.
It did, though drip might be a better metaphor than pour. Infrastructure investment in fiber-optic cable, wireless broadband and the US Internet backbone may end up at less than 1% of the total stimulus package, according to the Wall Street Journal. Al Gore may have invented the Internet, but Barack Obama, our most technologically-savvy presidential candidate in history, apparently doesn't plan to make much use of the Internet now that he's in office.
Despite polls showing growing doubts among voters that Congress is taking the right approach with this historic spending bill, it will pass. This bill is a runaway freight train and can't be stopped by human intervention.
It's interesting to think about the moral challenges of modern government, with its god-like powers to create and spend money, push the economy this way or that, and affect the lives of us all by both direct and unintended consequences.
Modern government is a mine field of moral hazards, and while many of our leaders are men and women of good judgment and good heart, too many, clearly, have neither.
The Apostle Paul lived in a much worse time than this, when leaders in both government and the church sought to suppress the fledgling Christian faith that he was spreading throughout the Roman world. His remedy was prayer:
I urge you [Timothy], first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4, NLT
Paul's goal was two-fold: 1) that we should be allowed to live our lives in peace, free from interference by leaders of dubious judgment and moral character, and 2) that these leaders should come to understand the truth.
And what is that truth? Paul continues:
For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. This is the message God gave to the world at just the right time. 1 Timothy 2:5-6, NLT
In other words, the greatest moral hazard we face is not that we will lose our jobs and be thrown out of our homes, but that we will fail to put ourselves under the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ, which Paul, the economist, says was purchased for us with something far more valuable than US dollars: the blood of Christ shed on the cross.
We only get to vote every few years, but we can pray every day. Pray and intercede for your neighbors and friends who can't find jobs. Pray and intercede for our leaders, that they might allow us to live our lives in peace, and that in this time of great unknowns they might humbly admit their ignorance and seek God's wisdom.
Times are tough, but God is still on his throne, still welcoming sinners into the grace of Jesus Christ. Like every time and every age, this is a time for prayer.
Photo credit: Storm Crypt, Flickr