Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bad Policy, Bad Morals, Bad Budget

In his latest “Point,” Mark Hyman rightly notes that President Bush has presided over a series of deficit-swelling budgets in his time in office. However, he suggests he’s more optimistic that the 2006 budget will be more economically sound, provided that a spendthrift Congress can harness its “untamed appetite for more spending.”

Hyman doesn’t acknowledge that both the Senate and the House of Representatives are controlled by Republicans. Apparently Congress still provides a more preferable scapegoat for the crippling debt that’s been run up in the last four years than does the president, and Hyman jumps on them, using numbers from the
National Taxpayer’s Union, a group Hyman labels “non-partisan,” but which in fact is funded by the Scaife and Mellon foundations, among other conservative groups, and favors replacing a progressive income tax with regressive labor and consumer taxes (a.k.a. a flat tax and a national sales tax).

But Hyman’s implication, that Bush's proposed budget is fiscally sound, is dead wrong. In fact, the Bush budget is the worst sort of political shell game. As the
Washington Post notes, the current Bush budget uses creative accounting to hide the fact that Bush’s proposals lead to skyrocketing deficits as soon as he leaves office. Even with this gaming of the budgeting process, Bush has presided over a colossal rise in national debt. If his policies are followed, the situation will get dramatically worse once he’s safely ensconced back in his Crawford ranch. Estimates suggest that if Bush’s proposals are followed to the letter, the budget deficit will gradually lower to a “mere” $251 billion, before beginning a rise to $335 billion in 2015.

But wait, there’s more! The Post also notes that Bush and many Republicans in Congress want to change the alternative minimum tax (AMT), a policy designed to make sure the wealthiest Americans don’t avoid contributing their fair share to the nation’s upkeep. If Bush’s changes are made, the size of the budget difference would be roughly twice the current estimate in ten years: around $700 billion. Even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham finds this unacceptable. From the Post article:

"The days of being everything to everybody are quickly coming to a close,"
[Graham] said, adding that a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts would make
it politically impossible to borrow the full cost of a Social Security fix. "We
have to look at the deficit in a holistic way."

The Post also quotes June O’Neill, a Republican and former director of the Congressional Budget Office as saying:

"I don't think that people should waste too much time on probing the details of
current policy, which just can't last."

So Hyman’s suggestion that the nation’s fiscal woes would be solved if Congress simply gave the Bush budget the green light doesn’t pass the giggle test. Nor does his claim to moral superiority. Hyman ends his commentary by saying that Congress shouldn’t engage in “frivolous” spending, “[n]or should Congress backtrack on earlier tax relief legislation. The people earned the money and it belongs to them not to government bureaucrats.“

Well, who are “the people” in this case? Invoking “the people” is a time-honored way of evoking a populist ethos, even if the policies being proposed are anything but. In this case, “the people” are members of the ultra-rich, who have benefited more than any other group from Bush’s giveaways. I say “giveaways” rather than tax breaks because, despite Hyman’s rhetoric, the money used by the government to keep the country going represents a real debt that Americans (and the most well-off Americans in particular) owe for services they take advantage of every day. It’s a bit like me telling my bank that I shouldn’t have to make my monthly mortgage payments because, dammit, I EARNED that money, and it belongs to me, not some bean-counting, paper-shuffling bank clerk!

Well sure, but I’m also living in a house that wasn’t free and which the bank helped me purchase. The money I take home is mine, but so are my obligations to those who make it possible to live a reasonably comfortable life. So are my obligations to my family. If our little micro-society is going to continue to function properly, I need to recognize the necessity of investing in the continued well-being of our Lilliputian “nation.”

The same holds true on a larger scale for our American nation. The Bush tax policies Hyman champions are not only putting the nation into record debt and allowing the wealthiest citizens to avoid contributing fairly to our society’s upkeep, but they are also shifting the burden of maintaining the nation to the middle and working class. Not only is this fiscally unsound (as is evidenced by the ballooning deficits looming in our future), but it’s immoral.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ve already heard me make arguments along this line many times. Let’s hear from another voice (from an evangelical Christian, no less) who makes this point in the specific context of Bush’s 2006 budget, and does so more eloquently than I ever could:
Jim Wallis, author of “God’s Politics”:

Low-income people should not be punished for decisions that placed us in
financial straits. Rather than moving toward a "living family income" this
budget stifles opportunities for low-income families, which are vital for
national economic security. Our future is in serious jeopardy when one in three
proposed program cuts are to education initiatives (after a highly touted "No
Child Left Behind" program); when fewer children in working poor families will
be included in Medicaid; when the food stamps that supplement families’ grocery
budgets are threatened; and when affordable housing is put out of reach. Cutting
pro-work and pro-family supports for the less fortunate jeopardizes the common
good. And all this while defense spending rises to $419 billion (not even
including any additional spending for the war in Iraq), with an overall increase
of 41 percent in military expenditures during the Bush years.

It is time to speak clearly about a budget lacking moral vision. A budget
that scapegoats the poor, fattens the rich, and asks for sacrifice mostly from
those who can least afford it, is a moral outrage. These budget priorities would
cause the prophets to rise up in righteous indignation, as should we. Our nation
deserves better vision. Morally-inspired voices must provide vision for the
people when none comes from its leaders.

The president said this budget represents his priorities. But are these the
priorities of the American people? It’s time for a national “moral values”
debate about the president’s budget.

And that, my friends, is The Counterpoint.


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