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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Budgets are Moral Documents

Some years ago I reluctantly accepted the job of developing and monitoring the budget of a County agency. I say reluctantly because I considered myself as a “program” person. Numbers and budgets were things that bookkeepers and accountants were interested in. What I learned in doing that job was that the person who knows the budget and the numbers controls the program decisions. I was more impactful on programs as a budget person than I was as a program person.

What we are seeing on the national level in our budget discussions in a very broad sense is the clash of two very different philosophies. One believes that the measure of a society is how you take care of your most vulnerable populations and another that believes what is "good for General Motors is good for America."

The budget discussions that are taking place at all levels of government are not just about dollars and cents but also about what we value as a country and a society. How do we define our collective needs that we entrust to government? How do we define what is meant in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble “to promote the general welfare.” The contrast between what Paul Ryan is proposing in his Committee’s budget and that from the Congressional Progressive Caucus is striking. Ryan’s budget cuts $389 billion from Medicare, the public health insurance program for seniors (and turns it into a voucher program) and $735 billion from Medicaid, which benefits Americans too poor to afford private insurance. Two thirds of the spending cuts come from programs for low-income persons. Head Start, Pell grants, low-income housing and food stamps are cut in a major way. The Congressional Progressive Caucus proposes a budget that brings our budget back into balance by eliminating the Bush tax cuts and ending our involvement in our two foreign wars.

In the Ryan budget the Department of Defense budget is kept relatively steady and unchanged. The waste and fraud that is rampant in the DOD budget is not addressed. With the United States spending 46 cents of every dollar spent worldwide on the military spending we continue to place that spending on a different scale than domestic “general welfare” programs. When members of Congress talk of escalating our involvement in Libya the costs of that escalation never seems to be a problem. The “war on terror” is a perfect war for the military budget because it will be never ending. How can you end a war that has no defined enemy other then some broadly defined group called “terrorists”? Do we really think that a few hundred fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan justify our spending hundreds of billions of dollars? That works out to about a billion dollars per fighter.

The budget is not just numbers on a ledger but it is a statement of what we value in our country. It is a moral document. With the US being the leading manufacturer of military weapons for the world it is fair to ask the following question, “Do we fear our enemies more than we love our children.” The answer to that question is in the priorities of the budget we pass. Saying “the children are our future” may make us feel good but where we put our money tells us what we value.


If you would like to see how you would make the budget choices to balance the budget go to this link.

There is a story on the Columbia Patch today on the churches involved in providing cold weather shelter. While the cold weather holds special problems for the homeless, homelessness is something that exists year around. I would hope that involvement in the cold weather shelter would encourage religious congregations to become engaged in homeless issues year around.

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