Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #063. First published in the St. Cloud Times Oct. 23, 2012

Two weeks from today attack ads get archived, campaign signs come down, phones cease incessant ringing and all that’s left will be celebration or hand-wringing.

But until “the most important election of our lifetime,” here’s more to ponder.

Every election cycle pumps hot air into words that normally function pretty well. Three have been especially inflated this time: “job creators,” “entitlements,” and “freedom.” If these balloons have lifted you into some ideological stratosphere, I’d like to bring you back to where we actually live.

The 'job creator'

Amid all the verbal flux of the past year, one note has sounded steadily: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” All sides assume this is the main issue, or at least that this is what the electorate is concerned about to the virtual exclusion of everything else. It follows, then, that what everyone is searching for is that superhero, the “job creator.”

We are informed that these saviors of America (and, by extension, of the world) are to be found among those whose taxes need to stay low or move lower, because they will use the money to hire people. We know that one of their number paid 14 percent of his $21.7 million 2010 income in federal income tax.

But it’s the many others of his ilk, even down to incomes significantly lower than his, who we are assured will start hiring just as soon as the government stops taking their money.

How to account, then, for the fact that corporate America is sitting on $2 trillion in cash? The reason: People aren’t buying stuff, and they aren’t buying because the financial crisis wiped out wealth and savings. Without consumer demand for goods and services, companies don’t create jobs. Jobs get created when people have money to buy things.

This is why policies such as an extension of unemployment benefits and government investment in infrastructure projects (especially when interest rates are at historic lows) and aid to states to forestall drastic cuts in education and other public services are actual “job creators,” with a multiplier effect.

Those who demonize government — the goal of “no new taxes,” according to the pledge’s inventor, Grover Norquist, is “to shrink (government) down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” — are disrespecting the founders of our republic, who established a government on purpose and called it “We, the people.”

Entitlement reform

Thanks to campaign rhetoric, the term “entitlement” drips with snide insinuations of laziness, irresponsibility and the revenge of shiftless moochers who resent the success of the 53 percent. But what the term refers to carries none of that freight.

An entitlement is simply something to which you have a right or a legitimate claim.

Certainly we need reforms in entitlements. The Social Security eligibility age has to go up; people are living far longer than they did when the program started. And the nonsensical cutoff of income subject to the payroll tax, currently $110,100, should have been eliminated long ago. But entitlements, whether Social Security or food stamps or unemployment insurance, are not boondoggles. They are marks of a civilized nation.


“Freedom” resonates for someone with my name — as in “liberty or death” — but it is used these days in distracting and misleading ways, as in this from the 2012 Republican Party Platform: “Taxes, by their very nature, reduce a citizen’s freedom.”

If freedom means total license to pursue wants and pleasures that money can buy, then money funneled to the common welfare may reduce that “freedom” for an isolated individual. But to a citizen, who does not live in isolation, freedom is much more. It is set in a larger context of community and country.

My freedom as a citizen is enhanced when my resources help my community to thrive — to increase its freedom. Paul Wellstone, who died 10 years ago this week, said, “We all do better when we all do better.” He could also have said, “We’re all freer when we’re all freer.”

Freedom when we citizens are all in it together is richer than when you’re on your own.