March 13, 2019
I am a fiscal conservative, in the sense that I believe we should live within our means. Living within our means personally and as families is important (and our massive credit card debt shows that many of us are not doing well at this). Nevertheless, in this blog I want to address living within our means at a national government level. Last month our United States national debt went over $22 trillion! We are borrowing this money from our grandchildren. No, that sentence is a lie. Because we have not asked our grandchildren for their permission, we are, in fact, stealing from our grandchildren! This is amazing. We who live in the richest country in the history of humanity are stealing from future generations. In addition, we pay billions of dollars in interest to service this debt. This is a political issue, but it is not primarily partisan. Most of our representatives in Washington, DC, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, have repeatedly voted to increase our national debt…and we citizens have tolerated this practice.
How did we get here?
Although there are many positive benefits from living within a democracy, there are some downsides, especially when citizens are not vigilant. A special challenge is the combination of two major parties with questionable congressional district boundaries. Given the makeup of our congressional districts, over 80% of them are either safely under Democrat or Republican control. Congressional representatives from these blue or red districts usually vote according to the wishes of their local district, frequently at the expense of the national common good, currently or in the future. In budget legislation (as in other areas) this has led to gridlock. It is extremely difficult to get the House of Representatives AND the Senate AND the President (who has the power of a veto) to agree on a budget that does not increase the national debt. Therefore, our representatives “horse trade” and essentially say “I will vote for your pet projects if you vote for mine”. To avoid a government shutdown (we all remember that disaster earlier this year), they raise the debt limit. Some of these projects are sincerely held (a military base in my district, public education funding, subsidies of all kinds, health care, etc.), but sincerity does NOT guarantee that a particular project should be designated as worthy to be included in our national budget. Our representatives must do the hard work of reasoned persuasion of their colleagues about priorities and a commitment to live within our budget.
A secondary problem deals with economic predictions. Democrat and Republican officials have often claimed that we can overspend now, because our “wise” legislation will lead to a better economy, and a stronger economy will bring in larger amounts of tax revenue and our national debt will be reduced in the future. Although there could be an ounce of truth in this kind of reasoning, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a reduction in the national debt does NOT take place. We who believe these predictions and promises are guilty of being too naïve. For example, the White House has predicted that the economy will grow at 3.2% this year and 3.1% for 2020. These figures are overly optimistic. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that growth will only be 2.5% this year and will slow down to 1.8% for 2020 as the economic stimulus of the tax cuts fade. We should learn lessons from history. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan promised that tax cuts would stimulate the economy through his “trickle down” economics and he would balance the budget. His Republican rival George Bush called this “voodoo economics”. It turns out that the debt ballooned under President Reagan. Bush was right, Reagan was wrong. We citizens have not held our officials accountable for their failed predictions…and our grandchildren will suffer the consequences and will ask us why we were so naïve.
How Can We Make our Country Better: What are the Most Important Priorities of the Common Good?
I urge our government officials to live within the budget. I urge our officials to put the common good above their personal or local interests. So, how do we choose the most important projects of our common good? President Trump has just sent to Congress his proposed budget for 2020. It is appropriate that he state his priorities. Nevertheless, “we the people” have the responsibility to communicate to our representatives what we think are the more important priorities for our country.
President Trump is asking for a 9% reduction in domestic expenses (including the Departments of Education, Health and Human Service, Interior and State) and a 5% increase in military funding, including a new proposal for an additional $8.6 billion for wall construction along our border with Mexico. I respectfully disagree with his priorities. Here are some of mine.
Military – Those who believe in Just War Theory and those who are pacifists can come together and agree that our military budget is excessive. We spend more on our military than the next seven highest national militaries combined. This is ridiculous! If President Trump really believes that we are not the world’s policeman (he is an isolationist) and if he gets other nations (Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc.) to pay for U.S. soldiers stationed in their countries (plus 50%), then our military budget should be significantly reduced, not increased. With the money that is saved, we will have more than sufficient funds to cover true necessities and begin to lower our debt.
One of the craziest parts of the military budget is that designated for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). The OCO was designed to pay for wars and is not subject to mandatory congressional spending limits. Trump proposed increasing the OCO budget more than double, from $69 billion to $165 billion. This is an attempt to go around the power of the purse of Congress and suggests we might be going into another war (Venezuela?) or perhaps using the OCO as a slush fund.
Medicaid – This program provides medical coverage for low income citizens. President Trump’s proposal reduces funding for Medicaid by $1.5 trillion over the next decade and would thereby eliminate medical coverage for tens of thousands of our neighbors. Instead of cutting funds for Medicaid, we should increase them.
SNAP food assistance – The Trump proposed budget would reduce funding of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by $220 billion over the next ten years. Those who believe in God and those who don’t together recognize the ethical demand to love our neighbor. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that the Bible teaches that this practical love for the poor is both a responsibility of individuals and churches (2 Corinthians 8 and 9) AND a responsibility of governments (Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 and Proverbs 31:8-9).
USAID – The Trump proposal makes drastic cuts to our agency that serves the people of poor countries, slashing more than 30% in humanitarian assistance. USAID is one of the few governmental agencies that is relatively benevolent towards the people of other nations without having the U.S. interests as the primary motivation.
Dear Citizens of the United States and of other countries: The
national budget of one’s country is a moral document. It reveals what is truly important.
To the degree that we are able, let us influence our neighbors and our representatives
to so structure our national expenses to improve the common good.