A budget is a moral document. So let me say this plainly so that you fully understand. The conservative-movement budget the GOP is going to deliver for President Trump to rubber stamp is a morally bankrupt document. There is something in this budget for libertarian free market monsters, predatory capitalists, racists, nationalist reactionaries, neo-liberal corporate grifters, religious zealots and militarists. President Trump didn’t write this budget. It has been written and has been passed in pieces since Reagan. This budget is an assault on both the common public good but on the moral underpinnings of a functioning society. The interests who created only want one thing… more.
That said we have been on a trajectory of cruelty toward this budget, which is an emphatic rejection of the concept of the common public, good since Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia Mississippi. We have been racing headlong toward a budget that imagines the best use of government is one that imprisons, deports and kills some communities, for the profit and to the applause of other communities since first Carter and then Clinton embraced the ideal of a politics liberated from labor and dedicated to “free markets, free trade” and the eradication of “cultures of entitlement and dependency.”
Over the next few weeks you are going to read a lot of think pieces about the brutality of President Trump’s budget as if it were unique in its cruelty or as if it were a departure from every budget that has gone before it. Neither of these things is true. This budget celebrates greed and expands economic inequality like every budget written under Reagan, Bush, Clinton, W and yes… Obama. The only difference between this budget and those budgets is the expansion of both who is seen as disposable and the amount of profit others can make out of discarding them.
Budgets are moral documents and any society that creates a budget that shifts resources from the sick, hungry, poverty-stricken, very old, children and public goods from infrastructure to the environment and education into tax breaks and war material is morally bankrupt. You may be uncomfortable with the idea that the values that permeate this budget aren’t a sharp break with the past but another point on the curve that is turning the moral arc of the universe back upon itself.
Let me say this clearly so that you are clear on what is happening here. This budget hands out tax breaks to the wealthiest citizens at a time of historic economic inequality, while expanding funding to jail, exterminate and abandon millions of its most vulnerable citizens while destroying the social safety net that they need. Our nation’s moral well from which we once drew the cooperative values of the common public good has been poisoned by the competitive values of private gain.
Moral Panic and a Brutal Civic Imagination
Budgets are moral documents and ours have been written by the conservative-movement on one hand and neo-liberal marketers on the other. The conservative-movement half of the equation is driven by a moral panic that lives in a permanent psychological Masada. They demand the state identify its enemies, use force to destroy and contain them and strip those enemies of any rights and privileges they do not deserve. Theirs are the values of fear, disposability, anger, ignorance and entitlement. The neo-liberal half of the equation has a civic imagination that sees the application and expansion of private market disciplines to shared public goods for private gain as the perfect society. Here are the values of greed, scarcity, competition and disposability. Each and every budget since Reagan’s first budget is a parabola tracing the path of citizens being treated like commodities at best and targets at worse. Ours is a government whose values have no room for compassion, solidarity, shared responsibilities or the promotion of the general welfare.
Civic imagination is what one imagines the common public good in a perfect society to look like. Budgets are mile markers along the road to the world you want to live in. When you read this conservative-movement budget remember
it was written by people elected by people. Our budgets reflect the values and emotions that compel voters to elect the officials who write the budget that defines the world as it is. The civic imagination of those elected officials, the perfect world that they imagine, shapes who the budget rewards, punishes, discards and cares for. The future they see creates the present that we all live and die in.
Government is an extension/gestalt of the civic imaginations of the people who vote for it. It is also an annunciation of the values and information that imagination draws on to become more real. The civic imagination that animates this budget points toward a world of fierce competition for scarce resources; where the eradication of domestic and foreign enemies and expendable people is considered our best possible future. We live in the gap between the moral panic that wrote this budget and triggers some people to engage in the world as it is and the terrifying civic imagination that is working toward a competitive predator state in the world the way some people want it to be.
Recognize the Continuity of Immorality We Face
A government’s budget is a moral document and never a matter of dollars and cents. Remember that every government taxes, spends and invests in the kind of society it wants to create. By definition any government’s budget is built on the values of those who construct it. The sorts of taxes a government levies, who/what is taxed, the public policies they find the money to craft and the fiscal/physical/social infrastructure they fashion are a manifestation of the values that drive it. A budget is a snapshot of a society’s soul and I’m not sure if ours can be recorded on film at this point. If you read this budget it is filled with anger, ignorance, fear, entitlement and greed. It is seasoned with misogyny, racism, militarism, exploitation, violence and patriarchy but I want to remind you that this budget is not an anomaly that came out of nowhere. It is instead an evolution of the interplay of the values that have been ascendant in our country for over 40 years.
Some of the arguments that will be used to justify this conservative-movement budget were the same ones that justified Clinton ending Welfare as we knew it. Some of the same arguments that will push this budget were used when Clinton was laying the groundwork for NAFTA and Wall Street deregulation. Clinton transformed entire communities into the raw commodities for an expanded mass incarceration market utilizing some of the same arguments you are about to hear again. Some of these arguments were the same arguments used Obama deployed when he made the Bush tax cuts permanent and did not pursue Wall Street lawbreakers.
See, this brutality and immorality is nothing new. The same morality that demanded the shrinking of the social safety net and the deregulation and austerity that destroyed entire communities is just more pronounced in this conservative-movement budget. The same values that couldn’t find money to feed, clothe and educate people or rebuild infrastructure found money for mass incarceration, militarizing police forces and privatizing public goods for private gain.
A government’s budget is a measure of balance of power between the needs of people who must have a strong social compact and the wants of people whose wealth is constrained by the existence of any social compact. What a budget cuts, pays for, invests in and who it punishes and rewards are all moral choices. Our moral choices brand us as monsters and if we don’t want to be counted among the fiends how do we resist?
What Do We Do Given Where We Are?
Over the next few weeks if you care enough to pay attention, you are going to be drowned in the details of a budget that cuts $54 billion from 19 federal agencies. These cuts will be wrapped in one market-based justification after another. When you hear these justifications remember that you live in the richest country in the world with the highest level of economic inequality in its history. This budget is its latest declaration of a set of values that has abandoned the concept of the common public good and replaced it with logic of disposability. Moral people reject, resist and respond to immorality with intensity.
We reject this budget by clearly stating what it means in real terms. This budget will lead to the deaths of many disposable people. Yes, I called them disposable and said they would die because you need to understand the moral dimensions of making America sicker and poorer. We reject a budget that will make Americans more precarious and better armed. We reject a budget that will make more people homeless and hungry while poisoning their environment and stripping them of education, infrastructure and medical care. There are 45 million Americans living in poverty and more than double that, a third of the country living just above it. This budget is a slow motion or fast moving death sentence for all of them. This is the budget the conservative movement and neo-liberal corporate managers have long imagined and worked to create. We reject this budget by stating clearly that it is an abomination and those that embrace it are monsters. There is no common ground with evil.
We resist this budget with our bodies and intensity. We call our legislators and go to their offices in intimidating numbers. We demand that they don’t just reject this budget with their vote but that they embrace our agenda and stand up for it. We take direct action to dramatize our resistance and slow down the machine. We build campaigns to pass local and state level laws that impede everything this budget wants to make a reality. We drag these laws into court. We educate ourselves and others on issues we believe in and give them avenues to act. We vote out elected officials who do not do our will and we become more and more ungovernable. The institutions will not save us. Action and activity, demands and organizing people around a set of agendas might save us if we fight hard enough and care deeply enough.
We respond to this budget by understanding that you are either fighting for something or losing everything. It is not enough to reject and resist this budget and the values that drive it to grind so many people into dust under it. We have to have an agenda that is rooted in the values of solidarity, shared responsibility, compassion, knowledge and mutual interdependence between communities and the environment that sustains us. Our agenda understands that a clean environment is essential to our shared destiny on a planet with a future and not just land to extract profit from. We need an agenda that understands that healthcare is not a product but a right. Medicare for all, clean energy transformation, mortgage relief, infrastructure restoration, progressive tax system restoral, free K-college education and student debt relief are just some examples a civic imagination that sees a world where the common public good is respected and protected. Budgets are moral documents. I would like to see mine reflected in just one budget before I die.