Tag Archives: budget

This Isn’t Who We Are–Is It?

I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but America is in the midst of an identity crisis, and the identity that emerges will shape the future our children and grandchildren inhabit.

Are we the people who inscribed “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on the Statue of Liberty? Or are we self-absorbed climbers seeking to ingratiate ourselves with the powerful and privileged while devaluing the poor and ignoring the needs of the disadvantaged?

Are we a country committed to working with other nations to solve problems and resolve disputes, or are we belligerent saber-rattlers throwing our weight around?

Do we respect scientific expertise and intellectual excellence, recognize the social value of the arts and humanities, or do we sneer at the life of the mind and swagger with the hubris and arrogance of people who don’t know what they don’t know?

These are the questions posed by the “budget” the Trump Administration has presented to the U.S. Congress.

Trump’s budget cuts programs like Meals on Wheels that feed housebound seniors. It drastically curtails housing assistance to  poor people.  It takes the axe to  job training and education. It  eliminates the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps low-income job seekers age 55 and older find work by pairing them with nonprofit organizations and public agencies. It dramatically reduces funds for scientific and medical research.

The budget ends support for both NPR and PBS–sources of unbiased information for millions of Americans. It eliminates the endowments for the arts and the humanities.It destroys the EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. It guts the State Department and “soft power” in favor of more and more powerful weapons–despite the fact that the Department of Defense has previously insisted that such expanded military capacity is unnecessary and even counter-productive.

As Daily Kos posted, 

Trump’s budget does have its increases. There’s much more money for defense, so Trump can add ships the Navy didn’t ask for, build more planes that the Air Force doesn’t need, and in general make defense contractors moan in ecstasy. There’s also a lot more money for DHS — because deportation forces and walls don’t run cheap.

CNN Money described what America would look like if the budget were to be passed as introduced:

More agents along the border, but a hobbled PBS. A bigger military, but less chance of getting a decent lawyer if you’re poor.

The budget unveiled by the Trump administration on Thursday would remake the United States — vastly expanding national defense but cutting or gutting dozens of programs that touch the lives of Americans every day.

 Charter schools would get more money. But federal money would be eliminated for an agency that improves water and sewer systems in impoverished corners of Appalachia.

The takeoff and landing of your plane would be guided by an air traffic controller working for a nonprofit, not the government. If you live in a small city served by subsidized commercial airline service, you might have to drive farther to get to an airport.

And if you use Amtrak trains to travel across the country, that would become harder, if not impossible. The budget would end support for the company’s long-distance train services.

It isn’t just that the proposed budget is inhumane– a “reverse Robin Hood” exercise that privileges the already privileged. It is also fiscally insane.

People who understand policy–who can connect the dots–know that most of the proposed “cost saving” cuts will end up being much more expensive than the amounts being saved; Meals on Wheels, for example, keeps seniors in their homes longer, and helps them avoid time–overwhelmingly paid for by Medicaid– in hugely more expensive nursing homes. Job training programs reduce welfare rolls. Clean air and water reduce medical outlays. Research breakthroughs save money while improving lives and health.

The budget that encapsulates Donald Trump’s “vision” for America is a prescription for a third-world country, where art, music, science and scholarship are considered effete affectations, where compassion for the less fortunate is a weakness and poverty is seen as evidence of a lack of merit (and certainly not a problem with which the privileged need concern themselves.)

Donald Trump’s “vision” for America is a nightmare.

Lady Liberty weeps.

Magic Astericks

Paul Krugman shines a light on the antics of the not-ready-for-prime-time party:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

Krugman details the spending cuts that are specified–“savage” cuts in food stamps, Medicare and other programs upon which millions of Americans have come to rely. And of course, repeal of the hated “Obamacare.” Read through his column, and you have a picture of the priorities of people who have lost touch not just with reality, but with decency.

And that brings Krugman to his most important point, and one we should all ponder–especially those of us who called the GOP home before the party became a collection of radicalized, resentful inhabitants of an alternate reality.

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

O.K., I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

Krugman can be fact-checked; his numbers are accurate. But as a scroll through Facebook or the comments section of your favorite news source will confirm, facts don’t matter. Evidence doesn’t matter.

Crazy rules. And it’s terrifying, because you can’t talk to crazy.




While We Are Wringing Our Hands….

While we wait for the impact of sequestration to hit, we might ponder this: In an interview with Spiegel Online, a Harvard economist insisted that we could save an amount equal to the sequestration cuts every year  just by ending the War on Drugs.

“The prohibition of drugs is the worst solution for preventing abuse,” said Professor Jeffrey Miron. “Firstly, it brings about a black market that is corrupt and costs human lives. Secondly, it constrains people who wouldn’t abuse drugs. Thirdly, prohibiting drugs is expensive.”

I have made this point before.

The direct costs of our counterproductive drug war have been estimated at more than 60 billion dollars a year. And yet, in all the years we have pursued this war, we have not reduced the percentage of Americans using hard drugs. Instead, that sixty billion dollars a year has destroyed lives, incentivized criminal activity, increased police corruption, laid waste to several South American countries, and decimated inner city neighborhoods.

If our elected officials are really so intent upon reducing the national debt, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop spending enormous sums for a failed policy, and use at least some of the savings for treatment? Better still, we could legalize marijuana–which medical experts tell us is less dangerous than booze–and tax it.

I don’t know whether we’d save more than the sequester, but abandoning a failed, horrifically expensive program would be a far more rational approach than taking an indiscriminate, meat ax approach to the budget.

The Politics of Pay

Whatever the merits of Mayor Ballard’s decision to give his staff huge pay raises, the “optics,” as they say, are terrible. The upcoming city budget will be more than painful, thanks largely to the ill-conceived “tax caps,” and the cuts to services will be draconian in some places. Giving your buddies in the Mayor’s office 20% raises at a time like this is simply tone-deaf. (Someone reminded me yesterday that former Mayor Peterson actually cut pay for his office staff at a time of tight budget constraints.)

For all I know, the raises were an effort to keep people from fleeing the administration; Michael Huber–far and away the most effective member of the Mayor’s staff–has already announced his departure, and this is the time in most second terms when people who can leave–who are actually employable elsewhere–begin their job hunting.

Whatever the calculus, this was a bone-headed move that will make it much harder for the Mayor to get the sort of political concessions he will need during the give-and-take of budget negotiations. It is one more bit of evidence–as if we needed any–that the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” American delusion is just that. Delusional.

Ballard may be a nice enough fellow, but he ran for office proudly proclaiming his “outsider” status. He asked people to vote for him because he wasn’t a “politician”–in other words, because he wasn’t someone who understood how the system worked. Voters bought it; they elected him over two opponents who actually did understand urban issues and politics. The results have been mixed, to put it mildly, and Ballard has relied heavily on outside “advisers” who have had their own interests to advance.

Cities can function with inept leadership when times are reasonably good–when we can afford the learning curve. But when the fiscal belt tightens, we need leadership that understands how cities work, what the priorities must be and how to achieve important goals.

It’s no time for the tone-deaf.

The Bottom Line

“Keep your eye on the bottom line” is good advice. But it is also a good idea to consider the definition of “bottom line.” In business, the term refers to profitability; too much red ink and the enterprise fails. In government, however, the “bottom line” is generally defined as doing the people’s business while at least balancing the books.

Indiana—like other states—is just emerging from a very challenging fiscal period. When resources are scarce, citizens can learn a lot about the priorities of our lawmakers. What will they protect, and what will they consider expendable? Will they play fast and loose—robbing Peter to pay Paul, as my grandmother used to put it? Will they use the crisis as an excuse to starve out political opponents?

What, in other words, is their political bottom line?

In Indianapolis, the Ballard Administration has chosen the Peter/Paul option: they structured the sale of the Water Company, for example, so that they could cash out up front. That allowed them to pay for street and sidewalk repairs without using property tax dollars—an upfront windfall to be paid for (with interest) by future ratepayers. Ballard also traded a significant percentage of parking meter income and control over the next fifty years for some immediate cash.

At least Indianapolis streets are getting paved. The Republicans who now control both houses of the legislature have chosen a different bottom line, elevating ideology over both fiscal and social common sense. This has been a truly shameful session.  (One of my students who is interning with the legislature told me he calls it the “hate-house” rather than the statehouse.)

Are Indiana citizens struggling to find jobs? Add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state’s Constitution. Do we have corporations trying to compete globally? Send a message that we don’t like immigrants, especially those who don’t look like us.

Many Indiana citizens have been hit hard by the recession, and the General Assembly has reacted by kicking them while they’re down.  During what one friend of mine has dubbed “this reverse-Robin Hood session,” our lawmakers have consistently favored the haves over the have-nots. Although people who can afford to make contributions and pay lobbyists have always had an edge, this year the favoritism has been nothing less than brazen.

At the beginning of the session, there was a good deal of talk about “shared sacrifice.” Now we know what that meant: when lawmakers reduced corporate tax rates, they proceeded to make up the difference by requiring “shared sacrifices” from the most vulnerable Hoosiers.

The legislature has eliminated dental coverage for disabled Medicaid recipients. It has cut the number of children who will be eligible for CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (despite the fact that 75% of that money comes from the federal government). It has increased co-pays for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities. It has deprived poor, largely rural women of desperately-needed healthcare by de-funding Planned Parenthood.

The attack on Planned Parenthood was a particularly egregious bit of theater. The current GOP is virulently anti-choice. Planned Parenthood does offer abortion and does defend reproductive choice. But it does not use a single cent of tax money to do either—such use of public dollars is forbidden by law. The majority was willing to deny poor women pap smears and breast cancer screenings to make an empty statement.

This was going to be a rough budget year, even with a legislature determined to work in the interests of all Hoosiers. Unfortunately, our legislature’s “bottom line” was all about ideology, politics and partisanship. Charlie White, anyone?