Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t speaking rhetorically when he urged the U.S. to “undergo a radical revolution of values.” In fact, he spoke quite plainly when he declared that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Fifty-five years later, our nation’s triple evils that King so famously promulgated — racism, poverty and militarism — manifest in President Joe Biden’s most significant value statement: his budget.
Widely considered a wish list, a spending package is a reflection of a president’s policy priorities — who gets what, when and why. “My dad has an expression,” Biden quipped as he introduced his 2023 budget. “He said, ‘don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.’”
The Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young echoed the same. “Budgets are value statements. They’re about the kind of country we want to be and the type of future we want to leave our kids.”
But a close look at Biden’s latest proposed budget makes clear the only future our children will inherit is one with a bloated military budget, racist policing, widespread indebtedness and an uninhabitable planet.
Consider violent policing and surveillance: Despite a sensible and growing call by organizers around the country to defund police by redirecting resources from militarized, anti-Black police departments to programs like free transit, health care infrastructure or wellness resources, Biden is doubling down on his not-so-data-driven “tough on crime” approach — sending the police even more federal money than before. Biden’s 2023 budget would allocate at least $30 billion in new police spending — a gut punch to the millions of voices around the country that have decried the enormous spending on police departments, especially since the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd.
Under the false guise of “security,” Biden claimed the answer is “not to defund our police departments” but “to fund our police and give them all the tools they need.” Los Angeles County and New York City, the highest-funded law enforcement jurisdictions, show exactly what happens when you give police more money: they spend it doing more of what they have always done. They buy more military equipment, they do more surveillance, they arrest and brutalize more people.
A mountain of evidence dating back decades shows efforts to “community police” or increase police accountability and transparency with materials like body cameras are simply not ways to reduce crime. In fact, more police resources have never meant better outcomes. In 2001, research from 200 empirical studies of policing and crime rates found increased policing to be among the weakest links to reducing crime and improving life. The strongest predictors of crime were resource deprivation, poverty and family disruption. And further, what reduced crime with much greater efficacy than increased policing was increased solidarity, shared goals and common projects in a neighborhood. Studies have similarly shown a dramatic correlation between crime reduction and increased access to health care.
(Even so, we must be careful in any discussion of the effects on “crime” rates from policing or anything else. As Alec Karakatsanis has effectively argued, the definition of crime itself often goes unexamined in these discussions, and is framed in such a way as to tilt the scale toward police and enforcement. If we could instead quantify harm independent of “crime,” we would likely see an even stronger case against more police and for “programs of social uplift,” to borrow a phrase from Dr. King.)
Organizers have been abundantly clear on this for decades, arguing that shoveling money into a violent, repressive, racist system is never going to make it less violent, repressive or racist — and that goes for the military, too.
President Biden proposed a defense spending bill of a whopping $813 billion — a 4 percent increase — totaling more than the defense budgets of the next 11 countries combined. Instead of tackling the climate crisis, Biden has prioritized beefing up the military-industrial complex and funding the Pentagon, the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels. Far from being a simple defense force, the U.S. military exists to allow the commission of extreme violence in any corner of the globe at a moment’s notice. That neither represents the values to which we aspire, nor meaningfully benefits anyone in the United States — outside of perhaps a handful of powerful corporations with multinational holdings.
If President Biden wanted a budget that reflected a genuine interest in meeting communities’ material needs, creating safety and improving the lives of working people, he would prioritize funding programs of social uplift. Crucially, this would include — but not be limited to — education.
President Biden proposed funding universal preschool, but there’s no reason to stop there. Education is a lifelong endeavor and something we all have a right to. There’s no reason education must start at age 5 and end promptly at 18. If we want an informed, engaged people, a country where inquiry and discovery are valued, we must direct resources toward education at all levels. That means pre-school, elementary, high school and all of higher education. And that means canceling student debt, which never should have existed if we had done things right from the start.
Education is only one piece of the puzzle. If we want folks to have a stake in their lives, in their communities, we can and should do even more. To “build a better America,” as Biden claims he wants to do, he should fund paid leave and child care before preschool. We could fund health care and wipe clean the moral stain of medical debt from our collective conscience. We could actually increase unemployment benefits, fund job-training programs, increase cash assistance, fund art and community centers, add parks and nature preserves, and on and on.
A budget is a reflection of values. By increasing money to police and the military, the president’s budget reflects the values of violence, brutality, racism and hopelessness. In Dr. King’s words, we are lying on our spiritual deathbed — but fortunately we have a cure. Grassroots organizations like CODEPINK are working tirelessly to cut the Pentagon budget, end militarism and “redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs.”
Community organizers around the country are producing incredible policy-specific projects like #8toAbolition — laying the groundwork needed to “reduce the scale, scope, power, authority, and legitimacy of criminalizing institutions.” The Poor People’s Campaign and the Debt Collective are united in their call for an end to systemic poverty and a national jubilee to wipe clean the slate of American household debts. We can reconfigure this significant value statement toward education and empowerment, toward community and hopefulness. This would require little more than the resolve in the White House to show some love in public, and to prioritize justice.