Matt Salisbury is a writer, designer and entrepreneur living in San Diego, CA.  He's interested in ways the Catholic Church's rich social teaching impacts political questions, society, and culture.

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Waltzing Off the Cliff

By Matt Salisbury

A German Jesuit with a great beard puts the fiscal cliff in some perspective.

It sometimes feels as though we are led by a gang of idiot children.

I’ll not bore you with a detailed breakdown of the tax and spending fight that’s been shrilled and hacked about in the media for weeks. Suffice it to say that our payroll taxes are going up and almost went higher; government spending on things like child nutrition and laser-guided missiles was almost slashed but those essentials were rescued at the last second, and the Prez came out looking good. But not to worry. Crisis averted. Our Lamestream Media has to find new motion graphics to firebomb screens with. Our payroll tax is going up, we ducked an awkward conversation about the debt ceiling, we’re hitting the Big Bad Millionaires with higher income taxes, and federal spending continues unabashed.

The element of the whole hoo-haw that spoke loudest was the pervasive partisan stubbornness. We saw it in a liberal president who petulantly refused to budge from his $250,000 number on what, I guess, he sees as the limit of an acceptable middle class salary, and we saw it in Cro-Magnon conservatives who refused to sign off on any expiration of decade-old tax cuts, somehow equating that with “raising taxes.” We saw it in the refusal on both sides to treat the problem. We saw it in hysterics over symptoms.

Compromise and grand bargains used to be the finer side of politics. They would at least earn lip service from warrior statesmen. A representative government like our own depends on some level of give and take; matters of prudential judgment often have multiple acceptable solutions and it’s our leaders’ duty to try and chart the best course. The navigation might be messy, but trench warfare is far messier.

Heinrich Pesch is a 19th-century German Jesuit economist who was, and is, a major influence on Papal Economics. In his work, Ethics and the National Economy, he highlights the importance of the state:

“It is [man’s] social nature, with its capacity and need for fulfillment, which directs him time and time again to move beyond the family toward that more powerful and more comprehensive higher association – the state. For it is by the state that he achieves all of those temporal human objectives which would be unobtainable without it.”

A well-functioning state is an essential part of community and allows the pursuit of human dignity. Pesch goes on to argue that the end of the state – its goal – is “to do for its members what they, by their own personal capabilities and by the capacities of lower-ranking societies within the state, cannot accomplish.” A textbook description of subsidiarity. This makes division and extreme partisanship at the federal level all the more concerning, since a correctly ordered federal government is the only body capable of performing its function.

What’s the cause of DC’s partisan dry rot? I spent some time over break reading The Information Diet, which makes some interesting comparisons between our eating habits and our information consumption. It taught me a few things about our government’s evolution. Each congressman used to represent around 60,000 Americans. There still wouldn’t have been personal input by each constituent, but it’s relatively accurate to say representing 60,000 folks well is doable. Our current city councilmen in San Diego claim to represent more. And that’s where the problem of our republic started. As the nation grew, the size of Congress eventually had to be capped off to keep the legislative body down to a functional size. Long story short, the amount of Americans represented by modern Congressmen is over ten times the amount represented when Congress was invented. A few hundred Congressmen represent hundreds of millions of Americans. A personal relationship isn’t feasible, so a clear brand becomes more important. And that makes the reds vs. blues so compelling. If a Congressman (or a Senator, or a President) can brand himself effectively enough in bright, broad, partisan strokes, he can get the support of the audience that votes their brand. And marrying yourself to a national brand means adhering to a strict set of brand values (have you SEEN the Disneyland Dress Code?). Being part of a national brand makes going off message very dangerous. It makes compromise with the competing brand dangerous.

When people vote their brand, they want their brand to win. Not mess around with the Other Brand. Certainly not hand the Other Brand any sort of victory, at all, ever.

I suggest we start engaging government. The folks who represent us. Their phone numbers and emails are online. Tell them what your non-negotiables are, and then congratulate them when they compromise and do something bipartisan and actually govern. Encourage federal leaders to do their job in their own sphere of influence. Don’t let the only thing they hear from you be form emails about pro-life issues. And do the same with “lower ranking societies” – smaller forms of organized government.

A functional federal government must focus more on Governing than on Big Brand Politicking. We can help it get there. It is, after all, our government.

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