Budgets are Moral Documents


prophetic witness

We are in the middle of budget season here in Canada, not only at the federal level but also right down the line to municipalities. Difficult decisions need to be made, especially during this period of economic downturn.

I was intrigued to read in the Globe and Mail an article shining a light on the obscure economist Friedrich August von Hayek, who plied his trade at the same time as his more famous counterpart John Maynard Keynes. Whereas Keynes argued that governments should intervene in the market to counter recessions, Hayek argued the opposite, saying that government intervention only prolongs recessions and that it is best to let the market sort itself out. (Check out this very humorous rap video showcasing their opposing views.)

Keynes & Hayek

This debate is much more intense in the US, where Tea Party advocates have adopted Hayek as their champion calling for an end to stimulus spending and a focus on deficit reduction. At the federal level in Canada we are already being told that the days of stimulus spending are over, a clear indication that the upcoming budget will be a nod in the direction of Hayek and away from Keynes.

However, the problems we face go much deeper than either Keynes or Hayek imagined, and indeed well beyond the realm of economics. Many around the world are experiencing losses and devastation on an unprecedented scale not only financially but as a direct result of climate-related catastrophes. For them it is a matter of life and death. Where in all of this can we find “good news” that points to a life-giving economy?

What gets lost in the debate between stimulus vs. deficit reduction are the many assumptions beyond unemployment rates and deficits that budgets embody. This brings me to another economist, Canadian Gerald Helleiner, who in my first class with him reminded us that the first question we must always ask ourselves about any economic measure is “cui bono?” or “who benefits?” Who benefits from stimulus spending focused on keeping workers employed? Who benefits from tax cuts to corporations and subsidies to fossil fuel industries? In biblical terms it means that we must ask, “what impact does a budgetary measure have for the poor, the widow, the stranger, and for creation?” This brings us to thinking about budgets as moral documents where we can ask whether each measure promotes an economy of greed or one of solidarity and care for the poor and creation. This is the biblical vision of an economy of life.

The current economic crisis and climate crisis are interconnected. They challenge people of faith to proclaim a different set of values that begins with the vision of one humanity, one creation.

What kinds of practical measures in the upcoming budget would move us towards such a vision? The world needs a Financial Transactions (“Robin Hood”) Tax both to slow down the out-of-control casino finance system and to raise revenue to address poverty and climate change. In Canada, we also need  a financial commitment to address climate change through real reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases and investments in a green economy.

How do we proclaim this good news in a time of deep insecurity, about our jobs, our homes, our children and our environment, when our first inclination is to hunker down and protect what we have at all costs?

The vision of one humanity and one creation is most profoundly proclaimed throughout the Scriptures. It is the game-changer that is needed now. And the challenge for all of us is to ensure that our leaders hear and respond to this “good news.”


Filed in: Spirited Reflections

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