Standing Up to False Choices

The budget isn’t about war versus welfare; it’s about raising enough money to pay for a civilized society.

Article created by The Century Foundation.

The Washington Post headline read “Bush’s Budget Bolsters Pentagon; $2.77 Trillion Plan for 2007 Would Trim Most Agencies.” Opponents are gathering to protest the cuts to medical care, education, and “most agencies.” Experts have highlighted the outrageous fact that the budget includes drastic cuts in guaranteed benefits under Social Security, in spite of the fact that this idea went down in flames last year when it was put to the public.

How convenient for the administration. The issue can be framed as guns versus butter, toughness against terrorism versus bleeding hearts.

The central issue in the budget controversy is not military increases versus cuts in social programs. The central problem with this budget—a problem that has marked every Republican budget since 1980—is that total spending is fundamentally out of line with total revenues.

We will hear that the cuts in Social Security, medical care and the rest are “necessary” because we are fighting a war and we have limited resources. But resources have been squeezed, via unaffordable tax cuts, exactly to provide the excuse for slashing non-military spending.

The policy of cutting taxes in order eventually to force cuts in spending has been in effect since 1980 and it has failed every year. 18 straight Republican budgets have failed to align revenues and spending. In that time, the national debt-to-GDP ratio has climbed by a total of 40 percent of GDP. We are diverting around 2 percentage points of our national income to service this huge increase in the public debt. In the 18 years that conservatives have pursued the policy of starving government, federal spending has increased by 2.3 percent of GDP. In contrast, between 1992 and 2000, federal spending was reduced by 3.7 percent of GDP. No Democratic administration since the end of World War II has left office with the national debt-to-GDP ratio higher than when it took office.

The fundamental problem with this budget, as with every Republican budget since 1980, is that it proceeds from the pretense that we must shoehorn size 7 spending needs into a size 5 revenue slipper. This is a conservative pipe dream. If voters have shown anything since 1980, they have affirmed again and again that they do not want to slash social spending, privatize Social Security, and shortchange education to accommodate tax cuts.

What the Democrats showed between 1992 and 2000 is that a sensible budget policy can give us lean government, a manageable tax burden, and budget surpluses.

The budget choices we face today are not about war versus welfare. They are about doing what we have to do as a powerful and civilized people, and carefully raising enough money to pay for it.