Posts tagged with: federal budget

Blog author: jmeszaros
Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John Boehner recently stated, in the debt-ceiling talks, that “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” which most Americans agree with in principle.  However, citizens say that keeping benefits the same for the three big programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, is more important than taking steps to reduce the budget deficit by a margin of 60 percent compared to 32 percent for Social Security, 61 compared to 31 percent for Medicare, and 58 compared to 37 percent for Medicaid.

So Americans purportedly want thriftier government, but still want benefits? What gives?  Part of the problem, according to James Kwak, is “the idea that there is one thing called ‘government’–and that you can measure it by looking at total spending–makes no sense.”

What Kwak means is that total expenditure is a misleading measure of the “size” of government. He presents this example:

The number of dollars collected and spent by the government doesn’t tell you how big the government is in any meaningful sense. Most government policies can be accomplished at least three different ways: spending, tax credits, and regulation. For example, let’s say we want to help low-income people afford rental housing. We can pay for housing vouchers; we can provide tax credits to developers to build affordable housing; or we can have a regulation saying that some percentage of new units must be affordably priced. The first increases the amount of cash flowing in and out of the government; the second decreases it; and the third leaves it the same. Yet all increase government’s impact on society.”

So increased spending (or decreasing it) does not necessarily mean the “size” of government has grown (or shrunk). Think how regulation is synonymous with big government, but it does not involve a tax or direct spending of any kind.

In fact, “big” government is often viewed through the lens of regulation, rather than cost. For instance, Kwak explains:

When people say government is too big, they often have in mind something like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–a regulatory agency that tells businesses what they can and can’t do…the CFPA’s budget is about $300 million, or less than one-hundredth of one percent of federal government spending.”

Again the divergence between cost and “bigness” is seen.  The CFPA may be viewed as “big,” intrusive, and unnecessary but it is not large in terms of cost like Social Security and Defense spending.

Kwak states, “popular antipathy toward the regulatory state has been translated into an attack on popular entitlement programs.”  Many people dislike certain government regulations and, due to the budget debate, dislike of regulation, the amount of government spending, and specific government programs may have become accidentally intertwined.

As mentioned before, Americans view Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as important and worth preserving.  Kwak elaborates: “Rationally speaking, your opinion about Social Security or about Medicare should be based on how much you put in and how much you get out–not on the gross size of the program, and not on how big the rest of the federal budget is. Yet instead the total size of the budget has become the driving force behind potential structural changes in Social Security and Medicare.”

Kwak suggests that “we should make decisions on a program-by-program basis, just like a business is supposed to do.”  His advice is: “If there’s a program that the American people, through our democratic system, agree will provide benefits greater than its costs, we should do it, independently of the existing spending level. And if there’s a program that isn’t covering its costs, we should kill it.”

Instead of focusing on a generality, “government size”, our elected officials should evaluate programs on a cost-benefit level.  Then government agencies that are viewed as too costly or intrusive (the CFPA) could be eliminated and government programs that are viewed as beneficial (SS, Medicare), but need reform, can be focused on in an unbiased way and not be harmed by the “too big” generality.

Jordan Ballor, in a blog post for Acton, wrote: “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.”  Indeed, although the American people think Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are beneficial, 52 percent think Social Security needs significant reform, 54 percent think Medicare needs reform, and 54 percent, likewise, for Medicaid.  However, without having a clear definition of what “too big” means, successful retooling will be difficult to achieve.

Ballor added: “This means that the fundamental role of government in the provision of various services must likewise be explored. This requires a return to basics, the first principles of good governance, that does justice to the varieties of governmental entities (local, regional, state, federal) and institutions of civil society (including families, churches, charities, and businesses).”  True reform requires not simply legal and budgetary change, but a reevaluation of what entities perform certain services, as Ballor suggested.

The Acton Institute is committed to real budget reform, and, to make sure that programs, like Social Security, are evaluated fairly and reformed properly, the United States should make sure it clearly defines the costs and benefits of individual programs before taking drastic action.

Two weeks ago, President Obama ventured courageously into the debt crisis debate with soak-the-rich proposals aimed at the usual suspects—“oil companies,” “hedge fund managers,” “millionaires and billionaires,”—and a new enemy, “corporate jet owners.” That phrase may have tested well with focus groups, but economists and pundits weren’t duped. The imprudence of a new punitive tax on a segment of the country’s manufacturing industry was immediately mocked up and down the Twitterverse, and longer arguments have since been made.

There’s also the “small” problem of the size of the tax break for corporate jet owners: over a decade, the government could collect three-quarters of one-tenth of one percent of the portion of our debt that the President aims to eliminate. The proposal begins to smell like demagogic nonsense.

Then we have this towering irony: the President wishes to harm a segment of the economy (manufacturing) which he claims at the same time to support. His union base insists that he sign no new free trade agreements until Congress passes protections for workers whose jobs are outsourced. There is no talk, however, of protections for Gulfstream employees who will be laid off when the higher price of jets brings down demand. Focus groups can’t provide much in the way of economic analysis. Perhaps the President’s team should have talked to Steve Rooney, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Wichita, Kan., who told the AP:

I think it’s just insulting. He acts like it is just a luxury for somebody to own a business jet when they’re used as tools. And I don’t think he realizes how many people that this industry employs and how much revenue is brought in here from those types of aircraft.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who claims that lawmakers are fighting the President’s tax agenda “to protect the owners of yachts and corporate jets. To protect corporations that ship jobs overseas” misses this inherent contradiction.

The Heritage Foundation’s Mike Franc calls it an “off with their heads” mentality, and he’s right. That successful businessmen should be bled dry out of a “sense of shared sacrifice” is not the instinct of a free society. It is a Marxist sentiment, one based in a view of historical progress as class conflict.

The creation of wealth, from which the U.S. can pay down its national debt, is not a zero-sum enterprise.  It requires the cooperative striving of the whole business ladder. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, management and labor ought not to be separated at all. “Isolating … ‘capital’ in opposition to ‘labor,’” he says, “is contrary to the very nature” of wealth and its creation.

In concocting a solution to this country’s fiscal problems, our leaders would do well to remember that.

Both the religious right and left have weighed in during the heated federal budget battle as Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget has seen its fair share of support and criticism from many religious leaders.

In a recent article appearing in Our Sunday Visitor Congressman Ryan explains how he used Catholic social doctrine to help draft his proposed budget opening up with his views on it should be utilized by politicians:

Catholic social doctrine is indispensable for officeholders, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to understand it. The wrong way is to treat it like a party platform or a utopian plan to solve all of society’s problems. Social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party, nor is it a moral command that confuses the preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for bigger government.


Policymakers apply timeless principles to policies that are necessarily limited by changing circumstances. The judgments of equally well-intentioned citizens may differ. Usually, there isn’t just one morally valid policy. Instead, there are better and worse ones calling for respectful dialogue and thoughtful judgment. The moral principles are dogmatic; the political responses are prudential.

Throughout the article Congressman Ryan defends his proposed budget by articulating how the poor and vulnerable will benefit, how it preserves human dignity, that it creates budgetary discipline (which according to the Congressman is a moral imperative), and abides by the principle of subsidiarity.

Furthermore, Congressman Ryan argues the U.S. government cannot keep the principles promoted by Catholic social doctrine if the country defaults stating: “Preferences for the poor, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good and human dignity are disregarded when governments default and bankrupt economies stop producing. Economic well-being is a foundation stone of an enduring ‘civilization of love.’”

Here at the Acton Institute we also understand the importance of passing a federal budget that is morally sound. We wrote our Principles for Budget Reform where readers can find articles, videos, and blog posts in support of four vital principles.

To read the full article click here.

Click here to read the Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform.

In a new article on Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg explores social contract theory and how that may apply to the current budget battles:

In very broad terms, social contract theory is a way of understanding the relationship between governments and the people. It holds that, having agreed upon the need for a government, individuals create a state on the basis of mutual promises. This permits the state to claim that its authority is based on a delegation of people’s rights to pursue their particular interests in their own way.

Our present economic disputes are, at a deeper level, about the precise content of those mutual promises. One influential interpretation may be found in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.

On the basis of what reasonable people in an imaginary “original position” and blinded by a “veil of ignorance” about their future abilities, social status, etc., would want, Rawls argued that each person had “an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties with a similar system of liberty for all.”

As part of this calculation, Rawls maintained that no one in the original position would risk being abandoned at the bottom of the social heap. Rawlsian social contract theory has thus, economically speaking, usually been interpreted as translating into extensive entitlement programs and large welfare states.

At the other end of the social contract spectrum is an older concept. This was given prominent expression in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.

In Locke’s view, what he called “the Law of Nature” meant that individuals were morally bound not to damage other people’s lives or property. The only way to ensure that this was given effect was through a government that defended everyone against anyone else’s attempts to damage their lives or property. The citizens thus agreed to set up a state that would protect the life, liberty, and property of everyone living under its sovereignty.

In economic terms, this position broadly equates to a state that focuses upon protection of property rights and adjudication of contractual disputes. Issues of distribution according to criteria such as need are deemed beyond the state’s competence.

The significance of these understandings of the social contract is difficult to overstate. The Lockean conception profoundly shaped the Declaration of Independence and much of today’s movement for limited government. By contrast, the Rawlsian interpretation represents the most contemporary philosophical underpinnings of modern American progressivism.

Not only does Gregg explain the problems with different ideas of social contracts, but he articulates what is needed for people to flourish in a society. Gregg states that many times it is the principle of subsidiarity that allows people to be successful:

Subsidiarity’s genius is the manner in which it uses this attention to free choice, human flourishing, and the need for support to provide guidance concerning how we apply subsidiarity’s two axioms of non-interference and assistance. It helps us determine (1) what economic roles can only be performed by the state (such as the provision of courts to adjudicate contractual disputes); (2) when the state should allow other communities to provide assistance (private banks should normally be the first place of call for loans); (3) when the state should intervene outside its normal economic responsibilities (when those communities that would normally assist are clearly unable to do so); and (4) when such interventions should cease (when they start impeding human flourishing or when the communities that normally provide assistance are now able to do so).

Click here to read the full article.

The blame game in Washington is heating up on skyrocketing gas prices. Republicans are criticized as being in the back pocket of the oil industry and partaking in crony capitalism. The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee is even cashing in by hosting a fundraiser that is based on what has been the House Republicans “decade long relationship of protecting Big Oil taxpayer giveaways, speculations and price gouging…” However blame is also placed on Democrats, with accusations of placing barriers to prohibit domestic drilling. The debate has also centered around how we can be better environmental stewards. We may find ourselves asking questions such as whether green energy promotes environmental stewardship, and if oil drilling results in a dramatic harm to the environment?

An article published by the Washington Examiner contains disturbing numbers that will not be received very positively. Oil production in the Gulf was lower than predicated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA); however, imports were up:

While oil production in the Gulf is down more than 10% from April 2010 estimates, net crude oil imports are up 5%. At $83 dollars a barrel (the approximate average price of oil in the fourth quarter of 2010) that means Obama’s oil drilling permatorium increased American dependence on foreign oil by about $1.8 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of last year alone. The numbers only get worse as Obama’s permitorium further cuts into production. A Wood Mackenzie study predicts that for all of 2011 the permitorium will result in the loss this year of about 375,000 barrels of oil a day.

More imported oil also means higher prices at the pumps. The EIA explains: “Retail gasoline prices tend to be higher the farther it is sold from the source of supply.” It costs more money to transport oil to your gas station from the Persian Gulf than from the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 26th, President Obama wrote a letter to Congress calling for “immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” The tax breaks President Obama is asking to be removed are worth $4 billion per year. This isn’t the president’s first call to action. His 2012 budget proposal also calls for the removal of the “subsidies.” But some have pointed out that the oil industry does not receive direct subsidy payments in the way that some farmers do. The president’s proposal specifically states:

Eliminates Inefficient Fossil Fuel Sub­sidies. Consistent with the Administration’s Government-wide effort to identify areas for sav­ings, the Budget eliminates inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change. Approximately $4 bil­lion per year in tax subsidies to oil, gas, and other fossil fuel producers are proposed for repeal.

Here at the Acton Institute we have spoken in opposition to true subsidies, such as subsidized farming (articles can be found here, here, and here) and health care policy (a related article can be found here). In the past we have articulate the problems with subsidization. The language in President Obama’s budget proposal appears to be vague and does not specify where the oil industry will no longer be, in his words, subsidized. Is it in drilling? Does it affect gas prices? Ray Nothstine notes in his commentary, “High Gas Prices are Devastating to Poor” our moral obligation to the vulnerable and how the high gas prices are affecting them. With gas prices continuing to climb precautions should be taken to prevent even higher prices.

Brian Johnson, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior tax policy advisor, provides insight on the proposal in the president’s 2012 budget. Johnson explains that the president is proposing to remove the intangible drilling cost provision, which is the oil industry’s ability to deduct drilling “costs associated with labor, architecture, design and engineering; basically the building of an oil rig, a platform or any structure that allows the industry to get into the ground and find oil or natural gas.” Johnson claims this process helps in planning for the next stage of development and construction. Furthermore, Johnson claims the oil industry is already paying its fair share in taxes with an income tax rate at 48 percent. Whereas other S&P Industrials average a 24 percent effective tax rate. Stephen Comstock, also from API, responded to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, articulating problems with the president’s call to end subsidies for the oil industry.

While the call to end the oil subsidies is being criticized by some, others are supporting such an action. Bill Becker, a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism and an energy and climate specialist at Natural Capitalism Solutions, argues the subsidies place the United States at a competitive disadvantage to China and India in the competition to champion alternative energy:

If we are looking for ways to chip away at the budget deficit, to keep America competitive and to use market-based mechanisms to build a competitive clean energy economy, then subsidy reform should be near the top of the list.

Think of it this way: Imagine an Olympic marathon in which the U.S. team has to run on a steep and continuous uphill slope, while the teams from China and India run on a level track. That’s what “winning the future” will be like for the United States if we keep our perverse energy policies.  Direct and indirect taxpayer support for fossil energy, which far exceeds government support for emerging green energy technologies, almost certainly makes winning the future a futile race.

Becker also cites a report by the Government Accountability Office that claims “taxpayers are losing tens of billions of dollars in royalty payments in part because the Department of Interior doesn’t have sufficient capacity to monitor oil and gas production on public lands.”

In his letter address to Congress, the president calls to reinvest the $4 billion per year that the oil companies receive in subsidies into clean energy. The problem with current alternative energies is they are inefficient, not cost effective, and cause many unintended consequences (related articles on the inefficiency and unintended consequences of various alternative energies can be found here, here, here, and here).

Yes, we will need to develop good alternatives to oil over the long haul, but spending money on energy sources that are not effective is not a wise investment or a sign of being good financial stewards. If the tax provision and subsidies for the oil companies are to be cut, and taking into account the budget crisis the United States is currently facing, it may better serve the country to not reinvest the money and cut it out of the budget completely.

Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis are  posing the question, “What Would Jesus Cut?” in an effort to skew the federal budget debates toward the usual big government solutions favored by the religious left.

Recently, Claiborne wrote an article for the Huffington Post, exploring the idea of withholding a portion of his taxes to demonstrate his disapproval of military spending. He announced that he is going to withhold 30 percent of his taxes to protest all U.S. defense spending. Mark Tooley, at the, has given thoughtful push-back questioning how Claiborne got the 30 percent figure along with articulating logical flaws in Claiborne’s ideology:

It’s not clear where Claiborne got the 30 percent figure.  U.S. military spending in 2011, including Iraq and Afghanistan operations, is supposed to be about $671 billion out of an over $3.8 trillion budget.  So the military will consume under 18 percent of federal spending.  Maybe Claiborne is playing the usual game of excluding “entitlement” spending from the total…

Claiborne, like much of the Evangelical and Religious Left, wants to reinterpret Christianity primarily into a resistance movement against the “empire,” which is chiefly America.  By doubling the actual amount of U.S. defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget, and deducting 30 percent from his IRS bill, Claiborne is striking his own blow against the empire.   No doubt America will survive without Claiborne paying all his taxes.  But what would happen if all American Christians ignored the teachings of their own faith and didn’t pay their taxes in protest against all military defenses?  What evils would then prevail?  How many would die?  What chaos and suffering would then ensue?

Here at the Acton Institute we have developed the Principles for Budget Reform resource page where we not only explore the problems with the federal budget, but provide solutions that are fiscally and morally responsible. Furthermore, we have questioned Wallis, Claiborne, and the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign by providing reasoned critiques which can also be found on the resource page.

In light of today being Tax Day,  we asked whether the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign might not be counter-posed with the question, “What Would Jesus Cut…from the Constitution?” Our new ad can be found on the Principles for Budget Reform resource page. We’re making the ad freely available for use as a poster or as an advertisement in your local paper, church publication or bulletin, or school newspaper.

Blog author: lglinzak
Thursday, April 7, 2011

With the ongoing budget battle and the possibility of a government shutdown looming, the Acton Institute has released its “Principles for Budget Reform.” The Acton Institute developed four key principles to reforming the federal budget that will be important to not only providing a sound fiscal budget but a budget that also has a strong moral basis.

In addition to the four principles, readers can also find staff written commentaries that are related to each principle, additional articles written by Acton staff, related blog posts, video of Rev. Sirico discussing morality in the federal budget, and audio from a radio appearance made by Rev. Sirico talking about the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign.

As the federal budget process continues, the Acton Institute will continue to update its “Principles for Budget Reform” with the most up-to-date articles available.

To navigate to the “Principles for Budget Reform” webpage click here.