Posts tagged with: discretionary spending

I posted some initial thoughts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” which was released by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action yesterday.

I’ve been engaged in what I think are largely helpful conversations on this document in a number of venues in the meantime. Gideon Strauss challenged me to look at the document again, and reconsider my criticisms, and I have been happy to do so.

For instance, I voiced the concern that the core budgetary problem that must be addressed concerns entitlement spending, and I judged that the Call does not sufficiently address that concern. Gideon pointed me to a piece by Michael Gerson, a signer of the Call, that makes precisely this point: “Debates on discretionary spending are important. Our government should not waste money on ineffective programs. But discretionary spending is a sideshow, even a distraction, from the main governing task: getting entitlement spending under control so it does not crowd out all other government spending.”

I also made a related point that we should not be juxtaposing cuts in, for instance, defense spending with those on other discretionary areas, including social programs. As Gerson writes, these debates are largely a “sideshow.” And so Gideon also pointed me to today’s editorial about the Call, which makes a number of important points, not least of which is that “It would be simplistic to portray the present challenge as a simple matter of ‘guns vs. butter’ and to overemphasize the contribution that prudent reductions in defense spending, however necessary, would make to the current debt crisis.”

One further point of concern I voiced is that “what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on.” Gideon pointed me appropriately to the CPJ “Guideline on Government.”

These are all good and necessary documents for understanding the proper interpretive context for the Call, and I’ll admit, they weren’t the first things I thought of when attempting to understand the petition. I still wonder, though, why some of these things couldn’t be made more explicit in the document itself? If Gerson is right, that debates over discretionary cuts of whatever programs are really a distraction, why not make the focal point of the Call entitlement reform in a more central and explicit way?

And I do think there are other relevant interpretive contexts for understanding the Call. Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and a host of others have been involved over the last days and weeks in a “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign that bears many similarities to “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Much of the material surrounding that campaign does seem to focus on fights over discretionary cuts, even to the point of contrasting military and social spending.

Jim Wallis said, for instance, “On a television program yesterday evening, I said that I want those who now propose major cuts to critical low-income family support programs to say, out loud, that every item of Pentagon spending is more important to our well-being and security than school lunches, child health, and early education programs.” He goes on to highlight particular social spending programs that should be immune to potential cuts.

I don’t think that kind of rhetoric is helpful at all, and is more of what Gerson might call a “sideshow.” But it is important because there is so much continuity between the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign and the “Call for Intergenerational Justice.” A significant number of signers of the Call, including Wallis and Claiborne, also are behind WWJC. And even the language about cutting budgets “on the backs of the poor” is reiterated with respect to the Call. Signer Jonathan Merritt writes that the Call means “we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

So while the CPJ documents Strauss points to are certainly relevant to understanding the Call, I submit that the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is also relevant. And here we might have a hint at why some of the more substantive theoretical questions regarding the role of the state in the provision of various social goods is not examined in more detail in the Call itself: the signers don’t have a unified view on this principled point. The CPJ Guideline on Government is a good starting point, but I find it highly doubtful that it would be assented to by all of the signers of the Call.

So perhaps there really is more than one way to read this document, and it can be put to various uses by various constituencies. This ambiguity, combined with my own doubts about what it actually does substantively say, are enough for me to refrain from signing it, even while I most certainly do agree with the sentiment that the current debt burden is unsustainable, both fiscally as well as morally, and continue to respect the work of many of those who have signed it.

In yesterday’s edition of the Grand Rapids Press, editorial page editor Ed Golder reflects on the implications of the historically-high levels of government spending, the deficit, and debt.

Most impressively, Golder notes where the government is actually spending money, and it is largely not in the areas of discretionary spending that so many politicians like to talk about. Golder writes,

Neither party is forthrightly honest about what needs to be done. Making the necessary cuts touches on very large and politically sacrosanct programs. About one fifth of federal spending, for instance, is defense. Can we seriously tackle the budget without looking at some prized weapons programs?

And the biggest category of spending, the one growing at the fastest rate, is entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and health insurance for children.

We may have to accept the idea that rich people will pay more than poorer people for medical coverage. We will almost certainly, given life expectancies, have to work longer before receiving Social Security benefits.

Reform of defense spending is important. But the real key is entitlement reform. I’ve often thought that one lasting legacy of the Bush era (beyond the wars and the Great Recession) is found in his insistence on bringing to the national discussion the issue of entitlement reform, particularly Social Security. He wasn’t successful, but it did show some principled political courage to make Social Security reform a major policy goal of his administration.

Golder also relates this entertaining little anecdote:

Speaking to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids Monday, financial forecaster Jason Trennert, was asked by an audience member to handicap Washington’s ability to make meaningful headway in tackling the debt. He wryly quoted theologian Augustine of Hippo, who famously quipped, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

In other words: Sure, we’ll reform. Tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s here. Heck, tomorrow may be yesterday at this point.

That’s one other legacy of the Bush era that we are living with, the legacy of the mantra, “Lord, make me thrifty, but not yet.” That goes for the politician as well as for the citizen.

Golder rightly concludes by pointing to the need for leadership on these pressing fiscal issues. We’ve gotten to this place largely because of a lack of political leadership. “Our leaders have to talk frankly about what needs to be done – programs that will be cut, individual sacrifices that will have to be made,” writes Golder.

Instead of statesmen we’ve been electing those who could bring home the most pork for their districts and constituencies, damn the consequences. That needs to change, and it begins in the renewal of leadership in other spheres of social life, including the family, business, charity, education, and so on.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, October 27, 2006

Data from a new CNN poll: “Queried about their views on the role of government, 54 percent of the 1,013 adults polled said they thought it was trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Only 37 percent said they thought the government should do more to solve the country’s problems.”

These results follow a period in which the GOP has dominated both the executive and legislative branches at the federal level. During this time, “Discretionary spending grew from $649 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $968 billion in fiscal year 2005, an increase of $319 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.” That’s nearly a 50% increase.

“Conservatives came to office to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private initiative,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. “But lately, we have increased government in order to stay in office.”

Power tends to corrupt…

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, September 20, 2006

NBC Nightly News has long had a special feature titled, “The Fleecing of America,” which investigates various instances wasteful spending by government officials.

To get a visual clue about the massive size and diversity of the federal budget, check out “Death and Taxes”, the 2007 edition, “a representational graph of the federal discretionary budget. The amount of money that is spent at the discretion of your elected representatives in Congress. Basically, your federal income taxes.”

The website also notes, “Don’t forget about the national debt! It’s the circle so big it doesn’t even fit in the box.”

I recommend printing out the graph in landscape orientation on ledger-sized paper and posting it somewhere near your desk. You’ll get plenty of questions from curious passers-by.

(HT: Mises Economics Blog)



Update: In response to the limitations of the graph noted by Tim in the comments section below, it should be noted that this graph does only refer to discretionary spending. This does not include either the mandatory spending that falls under the federal budget each year or the various entitlement programs, such as Social Security, which are “off budget.” With this in mind, of course, the pork in the graph above is the good news, relatively speaking.

With regard to speculation as to why the makers of the budget graph chose only to look at discretionary spending, I quote this Reason article: “Because discretionary spending can theoretically be zeroed out each year, it is generally regarded as the clearest indicator of whether a president and Congress are serious about reducing government spending.”