As the Eurozone crisis deepened this spring and summer, media outlets increasingly issued gut-wrenching reports on what were labeled “economic suicides.”
A 52-year old real estate agent in the northern town of Vicenza, Italy, hanged himself in a school playground. This was days after more than 100 widows marched in Bologna to mark the “numerous deaths” of Italians driven to suicide because of the economic crisis. In Greece, a retired 77-year-old pharmacist shot himself in central Athens, not far from the Parliament building, leaving behind a note that decried austerity measures he feared would leave him “searching in the garbage for food.” Again in Athens, a 60-year-old man and his 90-year-old mother jumped from the roof of an apartment block, a double suicide. Now in its fifth year of recession, Greece has seen its suicide rate – once among the lowest in Europe – rise by more than 22 percent from 2009 to 2011. Other reports discern the same deadly, despairing trend in Spain and Ireland.
Now, we have to be careful about these media reports. My pastoral work tells me that people can be driven to such tragic ends by causes and fears we sometimes cannot fathom. When people lose hope, death can seem more acceptable. These suicides may be “economic” or they may not be. But one thing is clear to me: The Eurozone crisis is a cause of real suffering, a loss of hope, and is felt most deeply by those who are least able to protect themselves and their loved ones – the poor, the elderly pensioner, the struggling proprietor of a neighborhood small business, the young family just starting out. These are the people whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matt. 25:40).
But it isn’t the much derided austerity measures that are driving people to these tragic extremes. The root cause goes much deeper. And fundamentally this is about the great lie at the heart of the all-encompassing welfare state, with its empty promises of eternal security and freedom from want. The welfare state and its advocates would have us believe that they have a political solution for a world where scarcity and human brokenness still hold sway.
This false hope is what Pope John Paul II was getting at in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. He took the “social assistance state” to task for contributing to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” He had it exactly right 20 years before the inevitable fiscal crisis swept through Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid and Bonn and paralyzed the once smug architects of the EU as “lifestyle superpower.” They never missed a chance to deride the heartless values of “Anglo-Saxon capitalism” (a phrase always wielded as a pejorative). But their “lifestyle” turned out to be a trap.
Does anyone find it odd that none of the media reports talk of “economic suicide” by crony capitalists, high-ranking EU bureaucrats, or labor union chiefs? They’ve apparently made their pile at the public trough and see no need to leap from rooftops and bridges.
When John Paul II published Centesimus Annus, he was also speaking directly to America, with its own welfare state crisis. Ours may not be as advanced in its fiscal and social pathology as the Eurozone’s, but the malady is just as serious. Unfortunately, our dysfunctional and mudslinging political culture seems wholly unfit for the task at hand.
We are watching the final laps of an election race. The candidates are offering sharply contrasting approaches to rapidly growing government spending, ballooning budget deficits, taxation and entitlements. Yet, both sides know that the trajectory of these trends is simply unsustainable, even in America. The Congressional Budget office just released a report invoking the “fiscal cliff” that the U.S. would veer over in January unless it averted a series of tax hikes and budget cuts due to take effect in January. Separately, the latest estimates for Obamacare show that it would cost American taxpayers more than $2 trillion in its first decade, and begin with some 18 different tax hikes.
But we’re still waiting for that “adult conversation” on the budget that President Obama called for last year. If there any doubts about that, look at the reception that Rep. Paul Ryan has received since signing onto the Mitt Romney ticket as GOP vice presidential candidate.
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has offered a detailed proposal for 2013. According to the plan, he “aims to reduce the ten-year federal deficit to $3.13 trillion through measures including a cap on discretionary federal spending at $1.029 trillion.” He would “dismantle” Obamacare. The focus would be “on cuts in federal spending — except on national defense — aiming to reduce spending by $5 trillion and balance the budget by 2040.”
The response to this has been vilification, character destruction and a campaign of spin and untruth about his motives. And that’s just from church people.
His understanding of Catholic teaching on social questions, in particular the Church’s special consideration for the poor, has been called into question by the left. A group of Catholic Democrats has charged that the Ryan plan “would shred our nation’s compassionate safety net” by “gutting” social assistance programs. They endorsed the Obama administration’s policies because of its “tireless focus on economic security for middle-class families.” Of course, this is just the sort of language we heard from European elites for decades as they were constructing their papier-mâché “lifestyle superpower.”
I need not get into the ins and outs of Roman Catholic doctrines about social teaching. But I should point out that a concern for the poor prioritizes considerations that demand that local – even family and neighborhood groups — act as “first responders” to situations of need. This is the great tension that the Church experiences today between “social justice” advocates, who point to solidarity with the poor, and the subsidiarity proponents who push for limited government, private charity and personal initiative. Not surprisingly, the “social justice” lobby usually defaults to government power and welfare state solutions as the instrument of achieving its ends.
Ryan, unfortunately, is holding a one-way conversation on entitlement reform, fiscal responsibility and reforming a tax code to incentivize, not punish, entrepreneurship and economic prosperity. On the other hand, President Obama describes Ryan as the “ideological leader” of the Republican ticket who will impose “top-down economics” on middle-class Americans.
We must do better than this before November 6. We are racing toward the fiscal abyss. Our profligate government spending, weak economic growth and stagnant job creation are a toxic mix. We must cease with these canards about the “shredded safety net” and the unforgiveable insinuations that Paul Ryan’s Christian faith is, somehow, defective.
Because if we fail at this, it will be “the least of these” in America who will suffer most. Their despair and hopelessness will be the price we all pay for not taking the time to have that “adult conversation.”
Reprinted from Forbes.