Tuesday, February 22, 2011

These Cuts

I've been chomping at the bit here for weeks as I listen to politicians talk about cuts that need to be made in government programs and that all of us will need to share the pain. They're lying. And it is immoral.

Here's where are the cuts they're discussing - education, food safety, children's programs, programs to help the poor, international food aid, and the list continues in a similar vein. Most of the budget items are relatively small but they are symbolic. To the degree that a budget is a moral document that speaks to a nation's real priorities, these discussions clearly tell us that the most vulnerable in our society are on their own. These cuts won't fix any perceived problems but the mean spiritedness and short-sightedness of the proposed cuts really is amazing to me. Imagine the future if our educational system, already lagging behind much of the developed world in important ways, is defunded and pushed further down the list. Imagine the future in our cities if the poor safety nets we currently have are removed. As a further insult, I did see a report today that while discussion these small cuts, funding for one will continue - the Army will continue to purchase ad space on a NASCAR car to the tune of $7 million a year.

Which leads us to the big areas... First is the military, which depending on how you count it is somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the entire government budget as we care for vets, support bases in over 150 different countries, and prosecute two wars that are rapidly approaching the longest wars we have ever engaged in. There is almost no discussion about the efficacy of the current military or the necessity of maintaining it as it is. Do those bases in 150 countries really contribute to our security? Or are there other ways to accomplish this? After spending nearly $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, are we closer to lessening the threat of terror? And even if we are, might there have been better ways that would have cost less and caused less suffering? As long as military power is an unquestioned value for our country, we will never even investigate the possibilities.

Second is Social Security, the retirement income program. Discussions of cutting the two latter programs are taking place. Unfortunately, they haven't been honest. We hear that Social Security will be broke in X years... as the society ages and there are fewer workers paying in and more taking out of the system. While that piece is clearly true, the original intent was that the funds paid into Social Security were envisioned as being in a "lock box" as a trust fund, held for the time when they ould be needed. Whether that was ever a realistic plan or not is debatable, but beginning with Reagan, the fund was used to pay for other government programs, essentially moving it from a retirement investment program to just another tax used to fund the government.

Any changes made to Social Security will have far reaching implications for our society as it has become the primary income for many elderly folk, the very folk who built this nation. And many who are nearing retirement have planned their lives with that program as an essential part of their future. There are ways to make the program more viable. The tax is capped at a certain income level. If the funds were only used to cover the costs of Social Security, this might make sense but as they are used to fund other government programs, they become an incredible regressive tax. So raise the cap or remove it entirely. There is talk of raising the retirement age as people live longer. While this discussion has merit, it must also be noted that different slices of the population have very different life expectancies and some kinds of work simply cannot be extended. While a 70 year old may do fine behind a desk at a computer screen, climbing onto a roof to do manual labor is a very different issue. And finally there are those who look at the statistics and see the program as being viable, as it currently is, for a very long time.

Third is Medicare, the medical program for the elderly and disabled. Frankly, I don't know enough about Medicare to be ignorant enough to make stupid comments. I do know that it, as with Social Security, is a critical part of the system many people rely upon and that the problems in our heath care delivery system are systemic.

Fourth comes the other side of the equation - taxes. Our highest marginal rates are the lowest they've been for over 50 years. Surely it tells us something that as the tax rates went down, the deficit went up. The discussion has been framed by the right wing that taxes are always evil and should never be raised. While my bank account certainly appreciates that argument, my heart finds it terribly lacking. It takes money to provide essential services. In my mind, the role of government is to provide those essential services, especially the ones that cannot or will not be provided by private enterprise. To the degree that an individual receives the benefits of living in this society, that individual is responsible to pay back. That means taxes. It is clear that since the Reagan presidency, income has been redistributed upward (see the chart to the right which goes through '07, the trend has increased since then). The wealthiest 1% have by far received the most benefits of living in this society. They, and the rest of us, should pay our fair share to support this society.

OK, now for the theological part... it is simple. The scriptures again and again show God's expectations that a society must care for the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens. Sojourners Magazine is distributing What Would Jesus Cut bracelets... surely he would not cut the programs upon which the poor depend.

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