The late C. Wright Mills had a certain segment of America's Cold War foreign policy establishment in mind when he coined the description "crackpot realism."
He might just as well have had in mind the outlooks of those performing the seemingly endless buffoonery masquerading as deliberations over the state budget in Sacramento. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger insists that the only way to close the estimated $24-billion budget gap is to throw children in need of health insurance, the ill, the elderly and tens of thousands of the working poor -- many of them single mothers -- to the wolves of self-reliance. The Democrats, naturally, resist, but offer no workable alternative plan to close the deficit. The Republicans stand apart, like some secular Taliban, and chant "no new taxes" -- ever, for any reason.
Last week, the state's Catholic bishops bravely walked into this lion's den of intransigent "realism" and offered their view of what's actually at stake in this tragedy that's being played as farce. It's crucial, they said, that lawmakers not only "undertake major tax and budget reforms" but also that they "give top priority to programs that provide for the basic needs of children, the disabled and those poor and unemployed who cannot provide for themselves." These people, the bishops said, need to be provided for "before funding less urgently needed services."
Noting that the groups they singled out already have been the hardest hit by the state's worst budget crisis since the Depression, the bishops wrote: "We don't presume to have all the answers when it comes to solving our state's serious budget problems. However ... as they go about their deliberations, we believe it is critical that lawmakers are guided by two fundamental principles."
First, they said, budget cuts should not start with the "wholesale elimination" of programs that address the basic survival needs of the poor and vulnerable. And second, budget and tax reform should be "addressed now, not later."
"A permanent fix needs to be enacted so that everyone who relies on state government, especially the poor and vulnerable, won't be in a constant state of upheaval, worried they will be cut off from the basic necessities of food, shelter and medical care," the bishops wrote.
Now, if you're the sort of person who finds both those admonitions a breath of genuinely sane realism, you might also ask yourself how and why it is so often considered sentimental or softheaded to point out that there are moral dimensions, and not merely fiscal considerations, at play in these budget deliberations? It's the implication that the bishops and other religious leaders speak out of otherworldly sentimentality that allows most of the state's English-language news media and commentators to routinely kick the clerics' statements on social justice issues into a well of silent indifference.
In a telephone interview from San Antonio, where he's currently attending the bishops' national meeting, Cardinal Roger Mahony said he was not bothered by the major news outlets' inattention. "Historically, we've always been concerned, as bishops," he said, "with government programs that serve the poorest and the neediest -- those who wouldn't survive without them. ... As far as the media goes, we get a much more powerful hearing on radio and television -- much of it in Spanish -- and in newspapers like La Opinion," L.A.'s leading non-English daily.
That's important, the cardinal said, because the bishops' statement wasn't aimed only at lawmakers:
"First of all, we want the poor and needy to know that somebody is speaking for them and their dignity," he said. "Second, we want to urge our own Catholic people to greater generosity to those who require help."
Still, Mahony points out that, as operators of the state's -- and the nation's -- most extensive network of social service agencies, California's bishops are painfully aware that public funding is the linchpin of their efforts. He argues that it makes no sense to enact cuts, like many of those Schwarzenegger is proposing, that save California 20 cents of its own dollar while forfeiting 80 cents of federal aid that the state's modest investment secures.
"Those kinds of cuts," Mahony argues, "should be the last and the smallest we make."
The bishops have done California a service with this intervention. It's good to be reminded that there's nothing sentimental or unrealistic about being attentive to the claims of conscience and human solidarity -- even when what's at issue is a matter of dollars and cents. In fact, given the social tenor of our collective lives these days, that's when it's essential to be reminded.