Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

On the Government Shutdown

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 17 January 2019

Most people who know me know that I work for the U.S. Department of Justice which is currently affected by the government shutdown. So, if you personally did not know anyone affected by the shutdown, now you do. Sure, it is very difficult to go without a paycheck and quite possibly without two or more paychecks in a row. Unlike federal employees who are actually furloughed–that is to say, they do not go to work–and can get temporary jobs, apply for unemployment, etc., I and my co-workers still have to go to work every day–we just do not get paid. Eventually, there will be back-pay. Grocery stores and gas stations, however, still seem to want money today for the bread or the gasoline that I need to buy today.

To be sure, it is likely that most of us will be okay, and there are people in the U.S. right now who are suffering a lot more than most federal workers. Nonetheless, there is a moral question in many people’s mind about the propriety of the President, who still gets his paycheck, even if he does not actually need it, and the Congress, each member of which also continues to regularly receive his or her paycheck, holding my bread and gasoline hostage. As a simple illustration, imagine a husband and a wife who have a disagreement about whether or not to build a fence around their yard; and while they are arguing over the issue, they starve their children, while themselves continuing to eat three square meals a day. Imagine a mother stuffing her belly with porridge and telling her children that they will not get any food until daddy builds the fence; and a father who lazily chews on his fifth slice of pizza and sips on a pint of beer while telling his starving children that they should not even come to the kitchen until mommy drops her silly talk of a fence because fences are immoral. Would it not make more sense for the White House staff and the Congress and their staff (who are usually their family members, friends, and close associates) to suspend their own pay while they are deciding whether a fence is more moral than a wall?

I have written before that writers should avoid topics that are beyond their area or expertise. Certainly, I am not an expert on immigration, but since this issue affects me personally, and since the question of morality has been raised, I feel justified in offering some thoughts on possible fixes.

First, it is probably as much common knowledge as it is common sense that for the President and the Congress this issue is not about money or morality. The amount of money involved, while enormous by any normal person’s scale, is only a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget–about one tenth of one percent. And regardless of their theatrical-style posturing, neither the democrats not republicans have the right to claim any type of moral authority or superiority in our society. The only reason they get away with their theatrics is the partisan blinders created by the bitter social divide coupled with a puzzling ignorance of the population.

To oversimplify the arguments, one side appears to insist that the U.S. has a moral obligation to accept and care for the “tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning” to migrate to the U.S., while the other side appears to reject this obligation. There are, of course, many nuances, such as election politics, labor politics, welfare politics, and many others that create a complex web of competing interests and policy decisions. It would be foolish of me to even attempt to untangle that web, but what about the argument that all of us, with the notable exceptions of Native Americans, are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants (and even the Native Americans immigrated to North America from somewhere a few thousand years ago)? This, of course, is true. On the other hand, most of the early immigration to the U.S. was different from the present-day immigration in one very important way–there was no welfare system prior to the Great Depression. In other words, an immigrant landing on Ellis Island in 1901 could not necessarily expect or demand food stamps, free lunches, section 8 housing, medicare, or free public education for himself or his children. Thus, an immigrant in 1901 could count on family, community, charity, hard work, and luck, but not on welfare. The situation today is somewhat different. And it may be that this very difference is at the center of some descendants of immigrants rejecting the idea of an obligation to support illegal immigration or legal economic migration.

The people who do not want to support economic migration, probably, just do not want to pay for all of the welfare and many other supports for migrant families. Imagine, for example, a migrant family with three children moving to Los Angeles, where teaches are presently on strike over low pay and large class sizes. Estimating conservatively, it costs around $10 thousand per year to educate one child in the public school system. In other words, it will cost $30 thousand per year or $300 thousand over 10 years to educate the three migrant children. Considering that the children’s parents are not likely to make so much money that they pay $30 thousand a year in taxes, and that most large corporations pay little-to-no taxes, it is up to the other working people in LA and elsewhere to cover this and many other costs. I do not know whether this math is correct, but I imagine that this is the type of argument that some people are making, albeit, not always publicly. They argue that building a wall on our border makes as much sense as building a fence around one’s house.

On the other hand, the argument that a wall on the border is immoral does have some validity, despite the likely disingenuousness and hypocrisy of some politicians’ using it. A wall on a county’s border is not so much similar to a fence around one’s house as it is to a wall around a town. Sure, I have the right to control who comes into my living room, but should I have the right to control who comes into my town? What if you wanted to move from one town to another, and the people there did not let you in? Should they have the right to drive you out? Who should have the right to tell another human being where he or she belongs or does not belong? Sure, a master can tell a slave that the slave must stay in one field and may not go to another. But who has the right to tell a free person where he or she must live? One may have been born in LA, should he not have the right to move to Idaho? Or, one who was born in Wisconsin, should he not be allowed to move to New York city? It may be reasonable to think that those who pay taxes in the U.S. should have a say in whether that money goes to pay for housing and medical care for Honduran migrants, but should they have the right to tell the Hondurans to go back to Honduras? Morally, in my opinion, this is a valid question to ask.

Undoubtedly, this line or reasoning opens the door to questioning other ways our tax dollars are spent. Should we vote on whether to invade Syria before our government invades, or whether to meddle in Venezuelan elections before we actually meddle? Should we have a say in how much of our tax money goes to subsidize mega corn producers? Some of these questions will not have a good answer–mostly, due to the size of our electorate. But what if some things could be done?

What if we envisioned a direct-democracy mechanism by which some of the migration issues could be addressed? For example, a migration fund could be established for the purpose of supporting economic migrants. Those who find it morally obligatory to support free economic migration can do so through such a fund. Food, housing, medical care, job training, transportation–the costs of supporting a migrant family who wishes to move to the U.S. can be calculated and covered by the fund. Those who object to such expenditures would not have to donate to the fund. This, of course, also means that those who want to build the wall would be free to donate to a different fund that supports this cause. As the recent experiment with crowd-funding the wall showed, organizationally, it is doable. Notably, wall supporters donated less than 0.5% of the amount requested by the President. But I do not believe that migration supporters are too much more eager to pay for their cause. Nonetheless, in a country of more than 300 million, direct financial contributions could be a half-way decent measure of true public support. Besides, it does not have to be a “winner takes all” approach. Those who want to welcome economic migrants would still be able to support a thousand families, even if their goal was to support a million. And those who want to build a wall still get to fund twenty miles of it, even if they wanted fifteen hundred miles built.

Many federal workers would also donate to various causes! We already donate to all kinds of charities through the Combined Federal Campaign, and we would donate even more! But not yet. For now, we are struggling to provide shelter and food for our children, and engage in “creative accounting practices” just to buy gasoline in order to keep going to work, even though we are not getting paid. So, here is another possible solution. If the President and all Congress members took their combined monthly salaries, they could send a $20 gas card to every federal worker who is working right now without pay. If the salaries of congresspersons’ friends, relatives, and business associates–also known as “congressional staff”–were also withheld for a month, there may be up to $300 in gas money for each federal worker to continue to come to work.



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