As President Obama touts his financial stimulus plan, and lawmakers almost completely follow party lines on approval, what are we, ordinary economically challenged Americans, to make of all this? One thing is for sure, we have our own views, and some of them are very passionately held from what I read and hear. But most of us are not qualified economists. We instinctively realize that something could be worse than nothing, though the mood seems to clearly be that the government must do something. The polls are all over the place, suggesting deep suspicion about this plan. I would remind you that something like this was promised by candidate Obama and the country then elected him based as much on these plans to save the economy as for any other reason. Now that a majority seem to question his plan this underscores again how fast one's political popularity can shift even if the president is wildly popular on inauguration day. Time will tell, like it does in every political decision that a president makes, and the country's response will certainly be a long term one. This is both the greatness and the frustration of our electoral system.
Like many of you I have tried to figure all this out by reading and listening. I have no keen insights to offer this morning except perhaps those of a non-professional who hopes for the best but retains a grain of cynicism about this plan. Weekend papers fueled my cynicism by reminding me that no matter what Congress and the president do businesses will keep cutting workers and the jobless rate will keep rising in 2009. There is little doubt that we are in for the deepest and longest recession since "The Great Depression." It could be much worse but we know now that it is very bad. I have already been involved in a decision-making process that involved closing a non-profit organization and I expect there will be more such decisions in 2009. While ACT 3 is not directly threatened we have lost money and cut salaries by 25% and still face hard times. One reason that I expect we can survive as a mission is because we do not depend on foundation grants and huge donors for our day-to-day operation. In fact it is just ordinary people, people like those of you who reading this blog regularly, who keep us going.
My Friday morning paper had comments from our four area members of the U.S. Congress. My congressman, Peter Roskam (R), a solidly conservative Republican in the seat once held by the well-known Henry Hyde, said, "It could have been much better. You just can't borrow and spend your way into prosperity." I think that sums up why many of us, like me, seriously question most of this stimulus plan. U. S. Representative Melissa Bean (D), another leader from suburban Chicago, said, "It puts money where it really does matter, and that's what you're looking for in a stimulus bill. You need to be broad and bold and swift, and this does that." But the promoters of the bill admit that it will not turn things around swiftly. Even the president is warning of a long down-time and slow recovery.
U.S. Representative Judy Biggert (R), another suburban member of Congress, adds (photo right), "My constituents don't want to pay for all this spending. What this economy needs now is a shot of adrenaline, not a bunch of long-term projects."
I am persuaded that Biggert is fundamentally right. A "shot of adrenaline" would include the kind of tax incentives that would free up money and create new investment in the private sector. There is only some of this in the bill. I do not think government has no role at all in this recovery but I fear the government has taken on the wrong role. I am not going to prophesy gloom and doom but I seriously wonder if this bill will change the big picture. I have no doubt that it offers some help to the weakest and poorest among us, for which I believe we should offer help right now, but will it create the jobs and economic confidence that rebuilds the infrastructure of our economic well-being?
The most fascinating comment of all came from Congressman Bill Foster, a first-term Democrat, from the suburban district to my west that was once represented by the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert (R). Foster said: "You'll not know that its successful for many years, and you'll in fact never know that it's successful. One of the difficulties of actually being responsible for government is that you're never given credit for disasters that are averted. We'll never know if it was true or not, and we'll never be given credit for stopping that disaster." That is one of one of the most candid comments I read.
Perhaps Foster (photo left) is being honest precisely because he was elected in a district than still leans heavily toward the Republicans. One thing is for sure—great minds and great economists disagree. What we do know is that we are all in for a harder time in the year ahead of us. As a Christian I intend to thank God every day for what I do have, not complain over-and-over about how bad things have become. I also want to offer real hope to those around me. To this end I intend to increase my help for others as much as possible. I believe this is the least I can do to live out my faith in such as time as this. Trashing motives on the various sides of this great debate will feed or help no one I know in particular. The bill has passed and now we must simply wait and see. Christians should not be cynics or fatalists. If the bill fails, over the long haul, the people will respond in elections just as they did last November. Let us pray, love others and truly serve the poor, and unemployed, as much as possible. I am praying that our churches turn to real concern for those in actual need above caring for their institutional needs first. This means they must put in place actual plans to help their people. This is a great moment for the church to be the church and thus for renewal to begin in our local congregations.